The foxy economy

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Any information herein was accurate when published on 10 November 2008

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Mandy de Waal
05 November 2008 10:39

Clem Sunter berates business schools and urges inflexible, self-involved businesses to look to their nimble, entrepreneurial roots to survive the economic crisis.

Throw your management books in the trash and don't rely on what you were taught during your MBA. It's not going to help you much as the world walks deeper into economic crisis. That's the message from leading scenario planner and author Clem Sunter, including the best selling author of The Mind of a Fox, Games Foxes Play and Socrates & the Fox. Written with futurist Chantell Illbury the books use the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog in drawing parallels to business behaviour. In short foxes are flexible and regard life as a balancing act. They embrace uncertainty and know they are never in control. The inflexible hedgehog is rather self involved and slavishly focused on "the one big idea" and the illusion of being in control. The notion of foxes and hedgehogs is taken from leading liberal thinker, historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin who based his thinking on an ancient Greek parable: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

"The hedgehog is all that is being taught in business school, even Jim Collins teaches business to think like this," says Sunter who adds that much of Collins's business bible, Good to Great, extols the virtues of the hedgehog. Collins says great companies focus on one central idea, while comparison companies are foxes and are (according to Collins): "scattered, diffused, and inconsistent".

"In this crisis business needs to think like a fox. We are all so beholden to US management theory, which reflects power and success. What has that done for America which has become a lot less powerful than it once was and now needs money from countries with a surplus? US management theory has been based on control and predictability. What rubbish! There are so many things beyond your control regardless of how much research you do."

Voted by local CEOs as the speaker who has made the most significant contribution to, and impact on, best practice and business in South Africa, Sunter says the age of the one great vision where business fanatically synthesise and march in unison to one central idea is dead. "When you stubbornly pursue vision your radar shuts down, you start believing in your own PR and you start believing you have a level of control which is unrealistic. Then the worst qualities of CEOs of massive companies kick in. They become unable to listen to, or tolerate other views."

"It's interesting that in Darwin's first edition of Origin of the Species he doesn't talk about survival of the fittest, rather the survival of the adapted. The best are those that adapt the fastest. What Darwin meant was that survival was ensured for those who best fit the environment as it changes. What this does require is a degree of humility and self knowledge, which is lacking in any book written in America because they regard themselves as so powerful and successful."

South Africans, on the other hand, are inherently a foxy economy. "This is because we are highly entrepreneurial and used to dealing with things that are beyond our control and uncertain on a daily basis."

In his latest book Sunter explores Socrates's concept of never arriving at the truth. "What you need to do is ask questions and get answers in order to get closer to the truth. This is a completely different way of thinking in business. No idea is sacrosanct; the business is always about the journey and not the destination. If the going gets rough you may need to change the destination."

"This thinking is different to the linear process that most other organizations have. I am not saying you mustn't have a plan or budgets, but that you must have a conversation that tests the assumption of your plan and tests whether you have alternative futures if the one you are steering toward doesn't work out. If you are playing a game which is unplayable you need to change the game completely. Hedgehogs don't do that because they've developed a blind spot."

Sunter says that to move to a more foxy way of thinking and survive the economic crunch business needs to answer the following fundament questions:

"You need to ask yourself how much of your future do you really control, how much is predictable? If the answer to this question is only a little bit, then what are you doing to look at the alternative futures which may be relevant to you? Lastly how are you geared to respond to challenges when they arise? What are the impacts of these futures on you and how quickly will you adapt to survive?"

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Disclaimer: Please note that this article is at least 12 months old.
Any information herein was accurate when published on 10 November 2008