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The hedgehog concept is a corporate leadership strategy outlined in Jim Collins’ 2001 book, Good to Great. The concept is drawn from a Greek poem in which a cunning fox tries and continually fails to eat a hedgehog who was always able to roll into a ball at the key moment. 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.
The story of the hedgehog and the fox derives 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. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” the poem famously concludes.
British philosopher and social theorist Isaiah Berlin expanded on this concluding idea in a 1953 essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin used the poem to divide the world’s thinkers and philosophers into two groups, hedgehogs and foxes. Collins’ “hedgehog concept” is the application of these distinctions to the corporate world.
How to Identify a Hedgehog Concept
According to Collins, the best leaders and corporate strategists reach success because they have identified their company’s unique hedgehog concept. Identifying such a concept starts with three separate assessments. First, leaders must ask themselves what the company is deeply passionate about. This might be customer service, or selling a certain product. 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 the intersection, Collins says. Business leaders following the concept will devote resources and energy to pursuing that one thing and doing it well, rather than searching around for new strategies and solutions.
The Overarching Importance of Consistency
One of the biggest benefits of the hedgehog concept in action 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.
Value to Individuals
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.”