Imagine if you could imagine the unimaginable, sketch possible futures about it and then make a choice between the options available to you
Believe it or not, it is feasible to sketch possible and sometimes extreme futures and to optimise your strategy accordingly. But you need the bright eyes of a fox to survey the world around you; you need the mind of a fox to map out the best way of handling the changes you see happening; and you need the speed and agility of a fox's response in turning your thoughts into action.
Thus we have devised a model that emulates the thinking and behaviour of a fox. It has three components:
Using scenario planning to establish the relevant factors about the future beyond your control, with the addition of flags and subjective probabilities for each scenario;
Based on the probability and impact of these scenarios, formulating the best strategic and tactical responses within your control to the challenges contained in them; and,
Generating sufficient emotional commitment and willpower to implement the decisions you have made.
If anything has supported this flexible approach to thinking - as opposed to the more focused approach of a hedgehog - it is the series of momentous events that rocked global financial markets in 2007 and 2008. Since then the realisation has grown that virtually everything about the future is uncertain and beyond the control of individual players in the economic game (other than their own responses to the changing rules).
The twin metaphors of 'foxes' and 'games' are used because foxes are quick-witted, adaptable animals, which any organisation aspiring to be world-class has to be in today's fast-changing environment; and games have much in common with business in that competing teams win or lose based on skill, strategy and tactics. Moreover, games are full of risks and uncertainties. Their outcome often turns on factors that are beyond your control or appear minor at the time they manifest themselves. Likewise with business. The contrast between foxes and hedgehogs originated with a Greek poet and a British philosopher (Archilocus and Isaiah Berlin). The original quote was "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing". For the team at mindofafox, foxes regard life as a balancing act between competing claims. They embrace uncertainty and know they are never fully in control. They change their minds when they realise they are wrong about something, or something better exists out there. Foxes think of life as a system comprised of many parts and interdependencies, and it is only through the knowledge of the system as a whole that one can optimise decisions about the future. They play different scenarios of what can happen around them and entertain many different ideas of what to do before making a choice.
On the other hand, hedgehogs simplify life around one great idea, more or less disregarding everything else, and bet on that idea. They never change their minds because they like to think they are in control. They view the world through ideologically tinted spectacles that let in no other light besides that which is on the same wavelength as their idea. A hedgehog will shoehorn the facts into something that will support his ideology, however much the arguments have to be distorted. You're either for hedgehogs or against them: there's no middle ground. They're divisive animals. Unlike foxes, they don't listen. They just want to impose their ideas. Know any current political leaders or CEOs who remind you of hedgehogs?!
In terms of the business game, the critical difference between hedgehogs and foxes is their attitude to strategy. Hedgehogs will stick to a strategy through thick and thin and never consider any deviations. Foxes will stick to a strategy but regularly check out the environment to see whether the strategy should be amended in any way. It is the contention at mindofafox that while a hedgehog approach to strategy may have been successful in the past because a company's environment was predictable and, up to a point, controllable, that condition no longer applies and a foxy approach is more suitable. Strategies where you have limited power and certainty differ materially from strategies where you can create the certainty because you have the power. This is true as much of politics as it is of business.
Perhaps the best combination is to have a visionary hedgehog at the helm setting the initial direction of an organisation, but underpinned by contrarian foxes who adapt the course according to changing circumstances along the way. But then the hedgehog must be open-minded enough to listen to his or her foxy advisors. That would be unusual.
The age of intelligence
The arrival of the digital age has meant that access to knowledge and facts has increased exponentially over the last 20 years. This has broadened the ownership of information, thereby diminishing control through having a superior information base and throwing further uncertainty into the fray of doing business. The differentiator now is the way we use existing knowledge to create new knowledge and expand horizons by dreaming up ideas that have not been dreamt up before. This is all about intelligence, which comes back to teaching people cognitive skills. In a steady state economic universe, the penalty for not having an intelligent strategy as a business is no longer slower sales growth than your competitors. It is death. Innovation has become an even more important element of a company's life cycle, since to grow, somebody else has to shrink. Competition in being original has just undergone a quantum leap.
Yet all the planning models taught in the MBA programmes at America's leading business schools still assume a level of control over the future that simply no longer exists - call it the hedgehog concept. Peter Drucker popularised management by objectives in his 1954 book The Practice of Management. He set the tone that if you have a measurable objective and focus on it, you can achieve it. Jim Collins actively promotes the idea in his highly influential book Good to Great. Essentially, if you come up with a plausible vision and you focus on it to the exclusion of virtually everything else, you will make it happen. In fact Collins commands, "for a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance".
So how can a new model of strategic thinking be invented in Africa? Simple. Americans are brought up in a country which, because of its premier position, believes it is broadly in control. We in Africa believe we are not. Like language and accents, thought processes tend to be influenced by where you live.
But why specifically South Africa? The answer to that is a remarkable story, partly known, but largely unaccredited.
During the 1980s South Africa was in the vice-like grip of Apartheid with little possibility of peace and democracy. Concerned with the country's future, Anglo American Corporation commissioned studies on the future of the country that produced a pair of scenarios: the 'High Road' of negotiation with the objective of creating a non-racial society capable of becoming a winning nation; or the 'Low Road' of retaining the status quo, leading inexorably towards economic stagnation, and possibly civil war.
The turning point
Clem Sunter, then a senior executive at Anglo American, realised that it was a message that needed to be spread further. In 1987 he led a team on a road show that addressed tens of thousands of South Africans, including political and business leaders, academics, teachers, students, farmers, the military and the police...in fact anyone who would listen. He presented the two scenarios and encouraged audiences to make what was then not an obvious, but quite risky, choice. However, the team's relentless pursuit of the High Road helped to create a shift in the mindset of South Africans which laid the firm foundation for negotiation and the peaceful transition into a respected democracy. The story turned from a remote possibility into reality even sooner than the team itself anticipated.
Successful though the High Road/Low Road scenarios were, scenario planning itself remained, globally, the almost exclusive domain of multinationals like Shell and Anglo American, and required highly skilled teams working over weeks, even months to produce a complete set of scenarios. It was a chance meeting between Clem and Chantell Ilbury over coffee that was to change all that.
Chantell was a successful entrepreneur and an Executive MBA student at the time, and was convinced there had to be a way that scenarios could be adapted so that small-to-medium sized businesses, even individuals, could benefit from scenario planning. She presented her ideas, and, legend has it, they scribbled their combined insight on a napkin, which became the nucleus of their first book. It contained the Foxy Matrix, which lies at the heart of their methodology: accept that much of the future is uncertain and beyond your control; and adapt your strategy and tactics as best you can to cope with it.