The Hedgehog and the Fox.
Kicking off yesterday’s IAB Annual Leadership Meeting was one of my favorite writers and thinkers: Nate Silver, author of “The Signal and the Noise” and the ridiculously accurate FiveThirtyEight political blog. With a super rumpled, cool, mad scientist vibe, Silver jumped from one cool analytical data story to another before closing very strong with advice for those wanting to connect “big data” with “big ideas,” the theme of the conference.
The first bit of advice – an observational idea, really – revolved around the concept of “false precision.” We can get so engrossed in the characteristics, depth, quality and statistical accuracy of our data that we rush into faulty hypotheses and bad conclusions. We think putting more and more data to work is almost an end in itself, and we never see that we’re asking the wrong questions in the first place. Human analysis is the only answer to the problem of false precision: we’ve got to get those right brain thinkers — connectors, synthesists, analysts – into this discussion in a way that we haven’t so far.
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The other big concept – the one that made me immediately say “Oh, yeah, this is going to be a Drift!” – is a 2,500 year old philosophical construct. “The fox knows many things. But the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For millennia, we’ve interpreted this through a pro-hedgehog filter. Being focused on one big thing – a big central idea, a silver bullet – was clearly the answer. So in philosophy, in business, in life, we keep searching for the one big answer.
But according to Silver, it’s actually better to be a fox.
Turns out, being focused on some huge, overarching central truth is a winner take all, zero sum game that most companies are playing mainly on the basis of received wisdom and what their “gut” tells them. Sure, the hedgehog might get it right….but if he doesn’t, it’s fatal. The fox, on the other hand, focuses on great execution and decision making across dozens of small things. He knows that you can run a great business by getting a lot of detail right. Google didn’t “discover” the big idea of helping people find things on the web; they just got all the incremental, executional stuff so right.
Today’s hedgehogs chase the huge breakthrough about the use of date in marketing. But what if all the really big ideas have already been ideated? What if now it’s about making a hundred great incremental calls about how you handle, interpret, analyze and act on that data?
Enter the fox.