Hedgehogs and Foxes - it is hard to get along (but worth it)


As for many others, one of the more interesting aspects about the election campaign in the US was the success of Nate Silver in his prediction. That, of course, led me to reading his brilliant book 'The signal and the noise'. In this book while explaining his path towards the prediction of elections, Nat Silver describes some interesting facts about political pundits e.g. in TV shows.

He analyzed several hundred predictions made TV pundits in a popular political talk show. He came to the conclusion that the predictions of those specialists weren't any better than simply rolling dices. Basically the distribution from 'prediction completely wrong' over 'prediction somehow ok' to 'prediction completely right' was a perfect rendition of a Gauss distribution aka bell curve. Depressing. But to Nate Silver this meant he saw a chance. After being busy in Poker and coming up with Pecota, a prediction system for player stats in Baseball, he decided to make a move into the fields of politics. It simply couldn't be harder to predict politics better than those lousy pundits. Of course, first he analyzed just why those predictions were so bad. What he found out, after talking to psychologist Philip E. Tetlock was the following, which Tetlock also describes in his book 'Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?'.

Regarding proneness to biases and certain views which influence predictions, there are basically two kinds of people: Hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs believe in the one great idea that holds the world together. Thus they express clarity (vision?) - but of course they are also more prone to evangelizing the one important idea. Foxes on the other hand like a more complex view of the world, combining several smaller aspects and forming a very specific and flexible view. Foxes are sometimes hard to understand, it is hard to follow their complex views, but they are open to new facts and feedback which can again alter their world view. The issue is - foxes rarely make it into TV, much less even into political talk shows. In TV they are no fun. They don't polarize, they don't fight. They simply don't draw attention towards them. Hedgehogs on the other hand make it into TV. Often. That is because they do like to polarize and fight for their one real, true idea(l). This leads to the worst predictors - hedgehogs - being more frequently in TV. Hedgehogs sell, foxes don't. The result is known - see above.

As Tetlock describes, the properties of hedgehogs and foxes lead to hedgehogs being terrible in their predictions (dices!) and foxes being quite good at it. Given the above description you can already figure out the reasons: Hedgehogs despise feedback and information that is dangerous to their one big great idea that saves the world. They are the epitome of being biased, even after reflection. If you ever read Kahneman's 'Thinking, fast and slow' and were surprised about how much are biases are influencing us without us knowing - imagine hedgehogs as hallways consciously blending out slow thinking because it hurts their idea. Foxes are grateful for all kinds of small information, enriching their world view, although making the collection of neat small ideas ever more complex and thus ever less easy to communicate. But they always update their model of the world with the latest data given to them.

While hedgehogs feel comfortable only with supportive feedback, foxes feel comfortable in a complex world of wild ideas.

Now, after a lengthy introduction on the topic you are allowed to ask Markus, why are you telling me this?'. Let me get back to a twitter debate I encountered some days ago based on this nice blog post by @klausleopold (Foxy!).

Enjoy the twitter conversation here: https://twitter.com/Kurt_Haeusler/status/273068451029979136 Klick on the Link to the tweet and try to detangle the conversation that ensued in your favorite twitter client. ;)

The whole point of the tweet stream here in this context is to show that there are huge debates amongst the communities, tribes, religions?, leaders? etc. of  Agile, Kanban and Scrum (and sure many others). Which is an interesting enough observation in itself, as to the outsider (such as my wife, my mother, my kids - basically everyone except myself) it could all be the same. But it obviously is not. Like brothers and sisters, debates about the seemingly small differences (seemingly!) can be fought at incredibly high noise levels. (If you don't believe me look at the tweet stream again - it is there for a reason). But that arguing about 'small' differences (and I could go hedgehog here for once: THEY ARE NOT SMALL, BUT IMMENSE!) can be harder than arguing about huge differences is only part of the truth.


Let us watch the following Venn diagram which is only my personal view of the common ground between Agile, Kanban and Scrum. We have a huge group of Agilists having much in common with Scrum (also a large group). Then we have the Kanban group of people, not too big yet but growing (sorry, no dynamics in this diagram). They have a certain something in common w/ both agile and Scrum and vice versa.

Where are you in this Venn diagram - which is completely agnostic about the hedgehog / fox dichotomy
The situation is complex. The picture could be about common ground in beliefs, values, practices or simply about people being part of a certain or several tribes. For the moment being lets just think about the latter. Also for simplicity sake, let's say we are looking at one individual being part of just one tribe - let's say 'Scrum'.

Hedgehog Time: A Scrum hedgehog knows Scrum will save the world, not only in the world of software/product development (PD) but in basically all areas of Life. There's hard data to support this. Thousands of companies were already saved by migrating to Scrum. Also, a wicked sports car company is completely based on Scrum. Even if Ken The Schwaber himself says that (was it) 80% (?) of Scrum is more or less ScrumBut - a hedgehog knows what he's doing. Also, the success of the Scrum alliance, one of the most successful pyramid schemes speaks for itself. Thousands and thousands of CSMs (handshake included and approved) can not be wrong. Also, the hedgehog heard about this thing called Kanban, which claims to be agile but even got rid of the agile success factor iteration. These guys must be looneys, also why the hedgehog heard - these guys simply copy techniques from the inhumane area of car manufacturing. That much for agile. Kanban clearly is not the one great idea saving the world - rather the opposite.

The Scrum Fox sees some problems in Scrum, lives with it. He also sees some issues with it. Scrum changes his life a while ago, but also he somehow feels stuck. He incorporated new techniques and idioms all of the time. BUt somehow he is stuck. He watched his data, velocity didn't improve after a first bump. He is now aware of this thing called Kanban, bought Corey Ladas' 'Scrumban' and in the last retrospective he mentioned if iterations currently make sense and if foxes team couldn't try without iterations for 4 weeks.

But all this is not my point. Hedgehog wants Kanban to be THE thing. He also wants people to accept this. He wants to move people towards Scrum. Same is true for the Kanban hedgehog. The Scrum fox on the other hand likes Scrum, but it isn't THE thing for him, no life saver. Last week he was at a meeting of a local Ltd Wip Society. He wondered why all the talk on Scrum vs. Kanban was mentioned, let alone be a heated debate.

When the hedgehog visits a <enter your favorite methodology here> conference he feels among the same, he is at the place to be. The fox, well, he has some doubts about the uniformity of the tribe. It is all too good to be true. Too much preaching to the converted. Something feels wrong, something is wrong. Pushing the fox leads to loosing him, not supporting the hedgehog does the same to him.

This sounds complicated enough, but we can explore the model further. Now let's say a hedgehog has gone the whole way - he started ages ago w/ XP (after having survived  RUP - he was a RUP hedgehog at the time). Then it was agile, the  *right* implementation of agile was Scrum and yes, he can't deny it - now Kanban has some advantages in his environment. But now it is Kanban. So our hedgehog likes agile, he understands Scrum, but he knows that the real deal simply is Kanban. Fine. He is a happy man. But … he wants everyone to see that this is actually one great big thing. *Scrum is agile, agile becomes agile ^2 which is Lean is Kanban*. So obviously we are all one tribe, one big family. We must all understand this. This is what the multi hedgehog wants - unity for the one big idea of Kanban/Scrum/Agile.

Enters the multi fox. He has the same history as Mr. Multi-Hedgehog. He is convinced that his way was good, but all data shows that he has made best progress with Kanban. He likes all the folks. But some are really getting on his nerves. They want to tell him he has to be part of that great, big, huge thing, the conspiracy against management: The Kanban, Agile possibly even Scrum thing.   We must all be alike now, must be the same. But Mr. Fox knows he likes to think in terms of Kanban. It gives him flexibility. He thinks it is elegant. He does not understand at all while he should call himself agile. Being a fox he doesn't need to believe in the huge *Scrum is agile, agile becomes agile ^2 which is Lean is Kanban*-will-save-the-world-idea. He knows there are many methods, many models. They can co-exist, they don't need to be the same. Vive la difference.

And so, while the fox and the hedgehog do the same thing they don't get along. The multi hedgehog knows he's right while the multi fox is still searching. The multi-hedgehog wants the multi-fox to be more supportive of the agile folks, which the multi-fox has no interest in at all. In fact, the multi-fox feels pressured into a tribe he does not want to belong to. He just knows tools he uses.

And now go through this exercise for all kinds of tribal combinations of hedgehogs and foxes. Have fun!

The hedgehog's closed view and system is a threat to the Fox, whose openness is vice versa threatening the hedgehogs views. While what they do is exactly the same.

Why am I telling you all this and for oh so long? The thing is that most debates are not between methodologies - I think - but between very close foxes and hedgehogs. Once you get this, I hope, you can better lean back and relax. Now you know why your colleague fox seems so unambitious towards your religion and resists your pressure to join the tribe. As a fox you know why the hedgehog colleague does not feel supported in his belief system and values, even as you share them. While arguing on twitter guys, or on conferences - always try to think of the hedgehog and the fox. There is no difference in value between hedgehogs and foxes. They're just different. The openness of the fox is great, as well as the clarity and determined spirit of the hedgehog. They're both ok, it's fine. But it is hard, but necessary work to always remember this. Wiki says Gary Hamel prefers hedgehogs which I absolutely do no understand. I think they are a great combination in real life, once they get to understand their underlying issue.

I am a fox, of course. Hence I don't like tribal enthusiasm. Sorry. ;)

PS.: For fun have a look into this dispute between what I would characterize as Scrum hedgehogs and Scrum/Kanban/Agile/I-am-beyond-estimation hedgehogs, amplified by twitters great 140 char communication bandwidth constraint. Please do me the favor and read the whole tweet thread rant conversation: https://twitter.com/jmeydam/status/273861354329370625

Footnote 1: The story of hedgehogs and foxes originates in Tolstoy and was then reused by Philosopher Isiah Berlin in 1953 (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hedgehog_and_the_Fox)

Footnote 2: If you want to find out if you are a hedgehog or a fox - try this simple test

Footnote 3: Here a short text on the impact of hedgehogs and foxes on science.