It was a lunch outing with old school friends – we were talking about the nature of work in our respective organizations. And the conversation swirled to how our approaches to problem solving and the rules of engagement differ across Product and Consulting firms.
If you’ve been in a Product company, you work on data which is generated by your own customers. You know the exact parameters of the problem you are solving , and what you need to do is specialize – dig deeper and deeper into the depths of the problem space you own to become a specialist in your area .
At a Consulting firm, you are valued for the exact opposite skill. Consultants are invited to bring in an external perspective of what is best in the Industry, work with a dizzying variation problems and data available. The width of what you bring in – along with fresh ideas is what makes Consultants attractive.
Of course, these boundaries were not hard divisions. It was more a generalization of what we’ve seen in our respective careers.
This discussion on the nature of our work, and its associated trappings triggered me to think about what really is the best way to live your careers and professional life. Is it better to be a specialist who burrows into the deep details of any problem space and lingers with it for years? Or are you better off as a generalist who dabbles in multiple areas and then perhaps picks up one that is most interesting for her at that time?.
As expected, wondering at this topic was not unique to me – The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “the Fox knows many things, but the Hedgehog knows one big thing.”.
I liked his analogy here, very visual and apt for my frame of mind at this time. So, the deep question is – Is it better to be a Fox or a Hedgehog ?
And I think the answer really depends not just on what you want to do , but also on where you want to be.
Specialists get to go deep into any problem area and stick to it for long periods of time. They spend time to understand the nitty grit-ties of it, and are very comfortable with details. This helps them develop as experts in their own field, but it can also make them unaware of dimensions outside their field of view. If you have a relatively fixed worldview – you risk getting blindsided by uncertainty, and when faced with problems you have not seen before.
Generalists are the “jack of all trades”. They understand the multiplicity of strategies for different problems, are comfortable with uncertainties and nuance and can navigate varied problem spaces. But they also understand their limitations. When stumbling on a question that requires nth order of details, they consult a specialist in those cases.
Being a Hedgehog is great, when you have found something you have a passion for , it makes you good money, and you are also excellent at it. Making the commitment to do something for a long period of time does not risk stagnation.
Being a Fox works when you want to constantly challenge yourself with something new, leveraging connections from what you’ve learnt in the past to be comfortable with uncertainty. What you bring to the table is the approach to solving fuzzy problems, an appreciation of nuance and the ability to connect diverse problems.
For the benefit of full disclosure – I am quite a Fox myself. I have worked across multiple industries and problem statements. In fact, my most fulfilling assignments have been ones where I have solved new problems in diverse industries. Which invites the contrarian thought – What could one be missing as a Fox ?
It would be easy to say – A Fox can become a Hedgehog, but how easy is it for a Hedgehog to become a Fox ?
But the real world is complex. Width is not enough – you need depth for excellence. And you do not necessarily need to choose sides. Both these approaches to problem solving need not be mutually exclusive. Pick one sliver and specialize in it.
Be a Fox for many things , and a Hedgehog for one thing!
Photo Credits: https://www.npr.org