“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future”
This Danish aphorism is a humorous way to acknowledge the difficulty in making predictions. The more you read about how we make predictions, the scarier the world looks. We overvalue the wisdom of our hunches and when faced with contrary data double-down on our predictions.
I’ve always been struck by the following…
- Our work requires us to make predictions, so we make predictions and move resources to meet our predictions.
- Our predictions are rarely true.
- Nobody seems to revisit their past predictions. Sportswriters make predictions at the beginning of a season but rarely revisit them at the end.
- The above does little to dissuade people from continuing to make predictions.
The close cousin of the prediction – the opinion – is also overly-leveraged when important decisions are to be made. Many big decisions are made based upon the “HiPPO Method” (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). I have always loved this quote by Netscape founder Jim Barksdale:
“If we’re going to make the decision based upon the data, let’s go with the data. If we’re going to make the decision based on opinions, let’s go with mine”.
There’s something else about predictions that is disconcerting: the more of an expert you are in a given field, the more likely you are to be wrong, which brings us to the fox and the hedgehog.
The fox and hedgehog metaphor was originally introduced by Greek poet Archilochus, then used in an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and later used as a metaphor on decision theory by author Philip Tetlock. The idea goes like this: the fox knows many things (he can eat the hedgehog for dinner, or other things, or even skip dinner that night) while the hedgehog knows one big thing (he must avoid being eaten by the fox). Using this metaphor, experts who are a mile deep and an inch wide tend to be hedgehogs, while people who are an inch deep and a mile wide tend to be foxes.
In general, foxes are less transformational as leaders. They draw on lots of data, are inherently cautious about getting focused on one specific idea, and are willing to stop, pivot, and try new things to arrive at the right outcome. Hedgehogs, by contrast, filter all of their decisions through one big idea. When hedgehogs are right, they are REALLY right; and when they’re wrong, they’re REALLY wrong. From a 2005 New Yorker article:
“Elsewhere, Tetlock has published an analysis of the political reasoning of Winston Churchill. Churchill was not a man who let contradictory information interfere with his idées fixes. This led him to make the wrong prediction about Indian independence, which he opposed. But it led him to be right about Hitler. He was never distracted by the contingencies that might combine to make the elimination of Hitler unnecessary.”
From a recent article on the subject (which I recommend reading in its entirety):
“Hedgehogs are deeply and tightly focused. Some have spent their career studying one problem. Like Ehrlich and Simon, they fashion tidy theories of how the world works based on observations through the single lens of their specialty. Foxes, meanwhile, ‘draw from an eclectic array of traditions, and accept ambiguity and contradiction,’ Tetlock wrote. Where hedgehogs represent narrowness, foxes embody breadth.”
Increasingly, I believe we live in a world where the fox will do better than the hedgehog. The hedgehogs’ poor track record with predictions has soured the public’s trust in experts – a understandable but distressing phenomenon given the fact that among the many hedgehog predictions are a number of highly accurate ones.
But in the run-of-the-mill prediction business, the generalist who draws upon a broad range of experiences and insights will have the agility to find his or her way – no matter how indirectly – to a better outcome than the hedgehog. Understanding this might increase the perceived value of a liberal arts education among employers, along with non-traditional experiences (military service, international travel experience, volunteer activities, etc).
The value of the generalist is also captured in Daniel Epstein’s new book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. For a quick porch-step interview with the author, go here.
The key for you is to understand foxes and hedgehogs when you see them. Also, regardless if we’re hedgehogs or not, we should try to cultivate fox-like tendencies. Widen your range. Expand your horizons. Consider your options. Demonstrate the ability to change your mind (in public).