What on earth do hedgehogs have to do with small business success??

by | Small Business Consulting


You may be wondering what a small spiny animal (with 5,000 to 7,000 quills . . . ouch!) has to do with small business success.

This notion was created by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t. His idea, though, actually came from an ancient Greek poem (there really are no new ideas under the sun, are there?).

This poem, written by Archilochus, includes this line: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Finch as businessman

Photo: Tracy Isenberg

Now, think about the fox. He’s known for his cunning, for his smooth and crafty movements, for his fleetness of foot. Meanwhile, the hedgehog is a somewhat clumsy creature (think of a chubby hamster and then cover him with the quills of a porcupine) and he doesn’t move all that fast. He mostly cares about having a snack and sleeping throughout the day so he can wander about again at night.

Put the fox and hedgehog against each other in a fight and who do you think will win? The answer might surprise you. The fox attacks, sleek and sure. And, if one predatory strategy doesn’t work, he’s got plenty more up his reddish-brown furry sleeve. Meanwhile, the hedgehog has only one response: to roll himself up in a pretty silly looking ball.

But, the reality is that, once a hedgehog rolls himself into that ball, even the wily fox can’t penetrate his defenses. In other words, the fox has many, many ideas – but none of them can outdo the one single strategy of the almighty hedgehog.

Collins contends that great leaders are hedgehogs in that they can take complex ideas and then distill them into a simple yet profound concept. Meanwhile, he believes, companies run by foxes tend to be scattered and inconsistent.

So, how do you come up with your simple yet profound idea? The short answer, according to Collins, is that it exists at the intersection of these three questions:

  • What is your passion?
  • What can I be the best at doing?
  • Where is my economic engine?

We then went looking for other experts who were discussing the concept to read their opinions.

What other experts say

Adam Fridman wrote an article for Inc. titled “Do It. Do It Right. Hedgehogging Your Startup” in which he applauds Collin’s philosophy and believes that it’s especially important for startup companies, calling it “doubly sound” for them. To quote his succinct summary: “In other words, if you’re McDonalds, don’t sell cars. Do what you do and do it well.”

Meanwhile, Stephanie Smith writes an article titled “Jim Collins’ Hedgehog Concept” for Success. In it, she focuses on Collins’ use of Walgreens as an example. (Did you know that Walgreens invented the malted milkshake? We sure didn’t.) Smith’s article summarizes the journey of Walgreens from a company that owned more than 500 restaurants to one that laser focuses on providing convenient pharmaceutical products and services – and their success cannot be denied.

Then what?

With a small business, it’s not enough to come up with your defining idea. You also need to manage your employees who must put this idea into action. So, what’s the best leadership style for you – and/or for your particular business?

A guide in the Wall Street Journal stresses that leadership is “less about your needs, and more about the needs of your people.” The guide also lists the leadership styles delineated by Daniel Goleman in Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. These styles include:

  • Visionary: ideal for businesses needing new direction
  • Coaching: can work well with employees who show initiative unless they see it as micromanaging
  • Affiliative: can help to improve morale, but too much praise can backfire
  • Democratic: this works best when a company’s direction is unclear and the leader can gain consensus; this seldom works well when quick decisions are needed
  • Pacesetting: with this style, you’d set the tone for expectations; this often “poisons the climate”
  • Commanding: this military style of leadership seldom works well except under select crises

1-2 punch

Here’s the bottom line. You need to:

1)   Identify your focal hedgehog idea.

2)   Lead your company in a way that allows you to successfully put your idea into practice.

Here are more thoughts on the hedgehog concept in business:

What do you think about the hedgehog concept? Does it resonate? If so, what is your one simple yet profound focus? What leadership style do you use? Leave a comment below.

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