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4.20.2010

Management as hedgehog thinking by Chris Mowles

I was invited by a small organisation which had been involved for over a year in human rights advocacy work to join them for an away-day where they wanted to reflect on their practice and think about what to do next. With very few resources they had achieved a lot. They had encouraged a number of disparate organisations to work together, had hosted conferences and workshops, had set up meetings between colleagues in developing countries coming from the developing South to speak directly to decision-makers in embassies and in UN meetings, and had developed a credible news service on the particular set of interests that concerned them. They were working in an intensely political environment and needed to respond quickly and authoritatively. The particular issue they were concerned with was vigorously contested, and their ability to take action was based on the strength of the relationships they could form with others, on the recognition of their legitimacy but in a context where events could shift the potential for action very quickly and very dramatically.
The organisation which had invited me was at the point where a number of new funding organisations had recognised their achievements and wanted to fund their work. The employees and trustees thought it was time to reassess, and perhaps to make their working relationships more formal particularly if they were to accept new funding. The business department at a local university had offered them a couple of MBA students to work with them to develop a business plan and together they had worked out a draft which was offered to the meeting as something to discuss. The students worked hard on it and did their best to produce something that would be useful for this organisation, but what was interesting to me was the assumptions that had informed their thinking, which, since they had not yet graduated, were expressed in quite raw form.
There were a number of assumptions that one would expect to find in any business plan that arose out of MBA thinking: not surprisingly they wrote about the organisation as though it had ‘products and services’,  was in competition with ‘competitors’, needed to identify its ‘unique selling point’ and would need to spell out  ‘where it wanted to be in five years time’ and what proportion of the ‘market’ they would expect to have. The business plan rested on expansion: any organisation that stands still, dies. To a certain extent, this kind of enquiry can be helpful, even if it merely obliges staff and stakeholders to make their expectations and understandings explicit to each other.
However, the characteristic that struck me most was the assumption that the organisation needed to reduce the complexity they were working in and concentrate on pursuing one or two objectives which would be clearly spelt out so they could be ‘measured’. In intelligently identifying some of the options the MBA students were pressing the staff and trustees to choose this or that course of action.
Clearly there are organisations which have sunk because of inability to focus on a coherent body of work, chasing aimlessly after the next thing that caught their attention. Scarce resources concentrate the mind. However, this particular organisation had thrived despite its limited resources because of the staff and trustees’ ability to live with ambiguity, to keep possibilities open for as long as possible and to work with th e known and the unknown. It was neither a very formal organisation nor was it at all bureaucratic: it had not tight contracts obliging it to ‘deliver’ this or that objective, but was able to adapt to the circumstances that were continually changing. There were clear things in the calendar which needed organising, but also random and unexpected events which they needed to respond to. They were dealing with the more predicatble and the unpredictable both at the same time. This raises different problems about accountability and meaning-making: the organisation had come under strain in finding the necessary time to discuss together how to respond to the circumstances in which they found themselves, and then to account to donors as to why they had chosen this path rather than that. But up till now they had successfully surfed the waves.
To the MBA students this appeared to be indecision, woolly thinking. Much better to collapse this set of ambiguities and opt for one thing rather than another. I was struck by how much this depended on what Isaiah Berlin termed knowing like a hedgehog. Drawing on the Greek writer Archilochus, Berlin argues that we can be inclined to think like a hedgehog or a fox. A hedgehog knows one thing very well ‘a single, universal organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance’, but a fox knows many things, pursuing many ends. In the business context, contemporary management discipline would encourage us to reduce, refine and compete. To focus on a handful of things and do this very well. Meanwhile, in a highly charged and complex environment one could thrive by knowing many things: to be sensitive to ambiguities, to keep options open, to be able to see multiple connections.
Staff in any organisation would do well to be alive to both ways of thinking in order to survive in tough circumstances. However, I was struck by how the MBA students depended much more on knowing like a hedgehog  than knowing like a fox, which seemed to them a completely alien way of seeing: a distraction, a squandering of resources. Hedgehog thinking is both powerful and seductive because it seems so straightforward and so clear.
One of their clearest recommendations was for new staff in the organisation with ‘good management skills’ which I took to mean an appeal to employ more people like themselves. There’s nothing better for winning an argument than packing the room with people who think like you do.

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