Leadership Strategy for Greatness– Hedgehog or Fox: Classic Struggle for Excellence– Do Just One Thing or Do Many Things…

Any company can find a ‘hedgehog concept’…  and, any company that says they can’t is simply whining. ~James Collins

The hedgehog concept is a corporate leadership strategy outlined in the book ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins. The original story of the hedgehog and the fox is derived from an ancient Greek poem believed to have been written by Archilochus. In it, a cunning and brilliant fox grasps the complexity of the woodlands around him. He sets his mind on eating a hedgehog, and spends hours plotting the perfect attack.

Meanwhile, the hedgehog, described as simplistic and somewhat dowdy, goes about its business unaware. When the fox ambushes, the hedgehog rolls himself into a spiny, impenetrable ball. Undeterred, the fox keeps re-strategizing, but the pattern repeats itself over and over. In the original poem it famously concludes: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. British philosopher and social theorist Isaiah Berlin expanded on this concluding idea in an essay called The Hedgehog and the Fox’. Berlin used the poem to divide world thinkers and philosophers into two groups, ‘hedgehogs and foxes’.

Collins’ hedgehog concept is the application of these distinctions to the corporate world.  Collins speculated that if companies were more like the hedgehog — that is, focusing on one thing and doing it well — all the cunning and brilliance out there would not be a threat to success. Those who built the ‘good to great’ companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs, says Jim Collins. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what he came to call a ‘hedgehog concept’ for their companies.

While, the leaders’ of comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a hedgehog concept; instead they are; scattered, diffused, and inconsistent. According to John F. Kihlstrom; what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others, who are just as smart, are the hedgehogs. For example: Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor– they were all hedgehogs…

According to Jim Collins; the best leaders and corporate strategists reach success because they have identified their company’s unique ‘hedgehog concept’. Identifying this concept starts with three separate assessments. First, leaders must ask themselves– what the company is deeply passionate about.

Next, there should be a frank assessment of– what the company realistically can and cannot be the best in the world at. Finally, there needs to be a determination of– what drives the corporation’s ‘economic engine’ — that is, an identification of the relevant profit structure and where it is rooted.

The hedgehog concept is where these three assessments overlap. A corporation’s ‘one big thing’ can be found in that intersection. One of the biggest benefits of the hedgehog concept is its consistency. Companies that devote themselves to one goal and constantly default to their known strengths in times of crisis are often better poised to overcome rough patches than are companies with many competing visions.

While the concept is certainly no guarantee for business success, it has gained a lot of credibility as a workable model. The hedgehog concept can also be useful to individuals. People who are unsure of their next steps in life or who are looking for ways to maximize their effectiveness are often well served by identifying their own personal hedgehog.

According to ‘Yannick van den Bos’; the hedgehog concept is based on three circles, all the same size and all of equal importance. Those three circles intersect in the middle, and this is the place where you should aim. The first circle in hedgehog concept involves- what you can be the best at. This is not meant to be a goal, or strategy, an intention or a plan. It is a clear statement of fact, developed by honestly looking at which area you can shine.

Keep in mind that what you could be the best at– may also be something you’re not doing right now. The second circle asks- what is driving your economic engine. Discover the single denominator which gives you profits while allowing you to pursue your passion. The third circle you discover- what you are deeply passionate about. However, the most important part of these circles (i.e., Venn diagram) is the middle intersection.

If you could live your life in that middle place, you will have it made. There you will be doing something that works with your core competency; something you can be the very best in the world at, and something you are deeply passionate about…

It’s not good enough just having– two-out-of-three; you want it all! For example: If you are passionate about what you’re doing, and good at it, but there’s no money to be made, you are going to be very frustrated. If you’re good at what you do and you’re making lots of money, but you hate your job, it’s not worth it. If there’s money to be made in an industry that you are passionate about, but you aren’t any good at it, that can be frustrating too. So, you must stay in the intersection of the three circles…

In the article Hedgehog Concept in Your Life by Steve Watters writes:  Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are scattered-diffused, moving on many levels, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.

It doesn’t matter how complex, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple– indeed almost simplistic– hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance. Recognizing that commitment to a simple hedgehog idea was a primary springboard for companies to go from good to great, Collins and his team developed three circles that people can use to identify their own hedgehog concept.

Collins offers this personal analogy: Suppose you were able to construct a work life that meets the following three tests. First, you are doing work for which you have a genetic or God-given talent, and perhaps you could become one of the best in the world in applying that talent (I feel that I was just born to be doing this.)

Second, you are well paid for what you do (I get paid to do this? Am I dreaming?).

Third, you are doing work you are passionate about and absolutely love to do, enjoying the actual process for its own sake. (I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into my daily work, and I really believe in what I’m doing). This is the world of the hedgehog concept…

In the article Steps to Take Yourself from Good to Great by Sonia Simone writes: In a good economy, you can do reasonably well with ‘good enough’. Good enough design, good enough marketing, good enough skills… When demand is high and dollars are sloshing around, there’s a market for: Decent. Capable. Adequate. Acceptable. But, we’re not in a good economy. We’re in a wretched economy. Industries all over the world are failing and ‘good enough’ professionals in all fields are scrambling.

According to experts, who smugly say; there’s always room at the top…. But, how are you supposed to get to the top? Believe it or not, there’s a map to the top… it’s applying the hedgehog concept. For sure, it’s not easy but it’s simple. You can and must do it, because ‘good enough’ isn’t ‘good enough’ anymore…

Hedgehogs simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. This approach keeps the organization focused on what it can best do to achieve greatness, a sustainable competitive advantage. The motto: See what is essential, and ignore the rest.

The hedgehog concept is– not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, or a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. Focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other organization is the only path to greatness.

According to Larry Stevenson writes: One particularly useful mechanism for moving the process along is a device that’s called the ‘council’. The ‘council’ consists of a group of the right people who participate in dialogue and debate guided by the three circles, iteratively and over time, about vital issues and decisions facing the organization. Build the ‘council’, and use that as a model: Ask the right questions, engage in vigorous debate, make decisions, autopsy the results, and learn– all guided within the context of the three circles.

However, it’s not easy or quick, and adhering to the hedgehog concept induces frustration because it requires an intense focus. This exact kind of focus is what built great companies, such as; Southwest Airlines. In the book ‘Made to Stick’ by ‘Chip and Dan Heath’ recount the story of how ‘Herb Kelleher’ of Southwest shot down the idea of adding a chicken salad as an entrée on the flight menu, quote: if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad. In other words, Southwest needed to focus on the simple concept of being ‘the’ low cost airline, and nothing else.

It’s easy to let things that you could do as an organization distract you from things you should be doing to meet your goals. By adhering to a hedgehog concept, these distractions are minimized. By adhering to their hedgehog concept, Southwest could lose customers looking for more or better food options.

But, that’s the beauty and power of having focus. It is perfectly acceptable to piss-off some people, if they are not part of your target audience. By being the low-cost airline, the only customers that Southwest really need to please are those seeking the lowest possible fare.

When you focus on your hedgehog concept, you will find ways to please the customers you want, and those that truly drive growth, rather than waste time courting the ones you don’t need…