The idea of categorising the world into hedgehogs and foxes has a long and distinguished past. An ancient Greek poem (possibly written by Archilochus) concluded with:

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

In this poem, a cunning fox wants to eat a hedgehog. He fully understands his surroundings, and spends hours plotting the perfect attack. In contrast, the simplistic hedgehog is unaware of the imminent attack but when it happens just rolls himself into a spiny, impenetrable ball. The fox keeps coming up with new strategies but, not surprisingly, the result never changes – the hedgehog wins (cf The Tortoise and the Hare by Aesop).

In 1953 British philosopher and social theorist Isaiah Berlin expanded on this conclusion in an essay where he divided the world’s thinkers and philosophers into two groups, hedgehogs and foxes.

And most recently (2001) the ‘hedgehog concept’ has been developed as a corporate leadership strategy by Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’. Collins speculated that if organisations were more like the hedgehog – focusing on one thing and doing it well – they would become great organisations and out-perform their competitors.

‘Good to Great’ outlines three separate questions that leaders in an organisation need to ask., and argues that the organisation will find its successful strategy (its “Hedgehog Concept”), at the intersection where all three of these questions are satisfied. The organisation can then focus like the hedgehog and successfully execute their strategy again and again. However, Jim Collins notes that this approach is not a quick fix formula but a set of useful questions that may take several years to work through and refine.

The three questions, which are represented as three overlapping circles, are:

  • What are you deeply passionate about?
  • What can you be the best in the world at?
  • What drives your economic engine?

 

These questions assume that:

  • If the people in the organisation are not passionate about the strategy, they will not execute it consistently.
  • If the organisation is not the best in the world at something, competitors will eventually overtake them.
  • If there is no economic engine, the company will not satisfy its customers and shareholders.

Collins notes that

A 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 organisation is the only path to greatness.

Personal application

This powerful diagnostic framework can also be used as a personal development self assessment tool. Answer the following three questions (slightly rephrased to be more personal) honestly:

  • What are you passionate about?
  • What are you really good at?
  • What do you need (in terms of pay and reward)?

These three questions are incredibly important to answer. Collins puts it

If you could drive toward the intersection of these three circles and translate that intersection into a simple, crystalline concept that guided your life choices, then you’d have a Hedgehog Concept for yourself.

Where are you now in your life’s journey? Whether you are currently employed or unemployed, starting your career or starting retirement, or just unsure what to do next, you would benefit from asking these three questions.

I have found that the first (what am I passionate about?) to be the most difficult to answer. I understand that passion refers to what you get excited about doing and that it is the energy that drives being great. And I understand that in considering this question you are not attempting to stimulate passion but to discover what makes you passionate. We all have skills and abilities and there are several techniques for analysing past work to identify what they are, and also what gave us a real buzz – a good clue to what we are passionate about.

Do you dare invest some time to consider these three questions, and then make whatever changes required so that your life choices are guided by the answer?