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Redefining Our Focus

A Lesson From the Hedgehog


For many years we have been told in business (and for that matter in our personal lives) to concentrate of the core products or services that we offer; the main thing we do. And this has usually made good sense. How many times have we seen ourselves and others, distracted, become disengaged, or caught out by ideas that appear worthwhile and profitable, but which pull us away from that very thing that our business is based upon and which pays the bills?

The concept of “Core Business” has pushed so hard that many are afraid to even consider another option. Fear that a new venture, an emerging service or an additional product line will see them outside their core keeps some from looking at alternatives, let alone considering changing the status quo.

Focusing on the main attributes of a business is not of itself a bad thing. After all, how many enterprises flounder because the leader(s) work “in” the business and not “on” the business? Business requires focus; it requires determination; it requires commitment. However, good business needs to allow for new ideas and new concepts. Good business has to allow time, space and often finances to stand back and evaluate; questions should be asked: What are we doing? Why are we doing this, or that? Where are we going? Do I want to keep doing this? These are a good launching point to redefine the focus of our enterprise.

A few years ago a book was written by Jim Collins. Good to Great was an instant bestseller, and deservedly so. In his study of 11 “great” companies (culled from an initial field of over 1400) Collins came to a number of valuable conclusions about the characteristics of great companies. One particularly is relevant to this discussion – the Hedgehog Concept.

The Hedgehog Concept is derived from an essay by Isaiah Berlin The Hedgehog and the Fox which is based upon an ancient Greek parable. The story tells of the cunning fox who tries many different approaches to pounce upon the hedgehog and each time is rebuffed by the hedgehog who knows only one response – he rolls himself into a ball of spikes thus creating both defence and attack mechanisms. The fox tries anything, and any means to win; the hedgehog thinks only of being a hedgehog. The point is, as Collins says, ‘for a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance’.

Collins suggests that the successful businesses he surveyed all enacted (consciously or subconsciously) the Hedgehog Concept which he further breaks down and clarifies into three questions. Where an individual business’ answers to these questions overlap becomes their focus point. Other issues, and even opportunities, need to be rejected as distractions so that consideration and resources can be focused in order to achieve the optimum outcome.

The questions that Collins proposes need to be asked are:

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

The beauty of these questions is not just their simplicity but also their breadth of application. They can be applied equally appropriately to for-profit and not-for-profit organisations; to corporations and individuals; to manufacturing operations and service providers; to “old economies” and “new economies”; and, they can assist with focusing religious organisations as well as secular entities.

When we start to look at these questions and answer then openly and honestly, the answers may surprise us (they might also scare us). Instead of concentrating all our resources into our core product or service we may find that we just can’t make/do it as well as others; it may be that our major brand/service does not create adequate (or any) profit; or, possibly we have no passion for what we are doing or making. Obviously this is only one consideration; however, it is a good start to redefining our focus for our business or activity. It must be taken into account that moving away from our current position we cause difficulties and the challenge and risk could be deemed to be too great – but at least we have made a more informed decision. The answer to the three questions may be that we continue to do what we are doing – we’re really good at it; our current product/service provides an appropriate return; and, we love doing it! Conversely, why continue to do/make things we know aren’t the world’s best, don’t produce a return that satisfies and isn’t something that we enjoy or are proud of?

For some this may be a too “intellectual” approach that seems to lack the reality of their position – fair enough! For others this concept will spur them on to evaluate their products and services in light of those three questions. Where the results synergise, where they unlock passion, where they provide an appropriate emotional and financial reward (or societal benefit), and where they unleash world class efforts/commodities, this is where our focus ought to be found.

Redefining our focus may not mean throwing away everything we have done, or all the ways in which we have acted previously, but it may bring about a greater realisation of what we do and why we do it. By analysing our activities and objectively looking at them through the filter of the questions which Collins recommends, we just might embark upon a new journey towards success in all its dimensions.

Simon Edwards

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Jason Harper

Jason Harper

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