Are you a hedge hog or a fox?

By Lucas Jensen

Who’s more successful, a hedgehog or a fox? 

Out of complete transparency, I got this concept from the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. If you want an in detailed explanation of how to transform your company, non-profit, charity or even life from “good” to “great!” make sure you give it a read. The Hedgehog concept comes out of the middle section of the book. By this point you’ve already got the right people within your company or “the right people on the bus” as Jim Collins put it. Now it’s time to identify your Hedgehog concept by answering questions within 3 different but equally important spheres.  


These three spheres revolve around 3 very basic questions that are also very difficult to answer. Before we get into what those questions are, we have to ask ourselves a more abstract question…

Is it better to be the best in the world at one thing; or to be competent at many?

Foxes are cunning, tricky, and strategic.

Collins explains this as the difference between a hedgehog and a fox. Foxes are cunning, tricky, and strategic. Foxes are quick, agile and by all likelihood more intelligent, in their efforts at least, than hedgehogs are.  A fox (let’s call him Fred) might track a hedgehog closely, watching his every move, waiting for the perfect time for a stealthy attack. Meanwhile, the hedgehog just goes about his day thinking little about what Fred is planning, or if he will succeed today. Finally, the fox sees his window, darts out from behind the tree running full speed at the little hog (let’s call him Harold). Harold sees Fred running at him, the excitement in Fred’s eyes tells Harold he really thinks he has him this time. What does Harold do?

He does the only thing he can do! He curls up into a tight little ball and hangs out till Fred gives up and runs off in yet another direction. Then Harold uncurls and continues down the path he started on. You might say, “Fred is so much better at all those other things than Harold! He’s obviously the more successful animal.” At the end of the day though, who was more successful in accomplishing his mission?


Now that we’ve taken a deep dive into Fred and Harold’s personal life, let's break down what this means for your business. The research shows that over and over again, the companies that are able to perform better, and sustain that performance, have a “Hedgehog concept” that they stick to religiously. Now I’m sure there are a million avid animal kingdom watchers who could tear the practical side of this apart, but according to Jim Collins, the research does show that regardless of how this principle is conceptualized, it is sound.

Let's break down what this means for your business

In your business this means your best chance of success, long term, is to figure out:

1) What you can be the best in the world at (even if it’s not your current core business!).

2) What drives your business economically (profit per customer? Profit per employee?).

3) Ask yourself what your team has the ability to be passionate about.

Where these three things meet in some kind of a beautiful business planetary eclipse, or maybe just a Venn diagram, is your Hedgehog concept.

As simple as these questions seem on the surface, they are more complicated than meets the eye. For example, a butcher might be really good at his core business for the town in which it resides, probably the best, but does that mean he’s the best in the world at supplying people with meat? If the local Walmart decides to put in a grocery section, that’s going to take away his advantage of being the only store in town supplying meat.

So what can the butcher shop do better than anyone else in the world? Maybe this particular butcher shop has a cut that is, for lack of a better term, one cut above the rest. That should be their focus. Now what drives the butch shop economically? Combined with what it has the potential to be the best in the world at, what metric or KPI best represents success in that area? For this example, we are going to use profit per lbs. of beef sold. The more this butcher shop focuses on selling this particular cut they could one day be the best in the world at producing, the more they will see the results clearly within this metric.

Now that our butcher knows what his company has the potential to be the best in the world at, and he’s identified the metrics that will keep it on the rails and focused on being the best in the world at that thing, the final key is something most entrepreneurs have in spades. Passion however, is not something that middle managers or even executives, always have an overflowing cup of. Here we are reminded of the importance of, as Jim Collins says, having the right people on the bus before you even start to drive. By making sure the right people are on the bus and (sometimes more importantly) the wrong people are thrown off, you are setting the company up for success from the get.

Everyone on the bus needs to:

A) Know where it’s going

B) See what moves it forward

C) Have the gumption to move the needle towards supplying the world with the best damn steak they’ve ever had.

There is a ton more to this principal, and I’m really just scratching the surface here and trying to get you thinking about how you can apply this to the things that matter in your life. If you’re like me, you have a million ideas bouncing around in your head of what could make your business better, more profitable and ultimately more successful. Let this be a sobering yet enlightening reminder that sometimes, being the best at one thing, is more important than being competent at “everything”.

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