‘A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.’
The parable of the hedgehog and the fox was made famous by the British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, in a 1953 essay on different patterns of social and historical analysis. The tale originates from the above quote by an ancient Greek poet, and has been used and re-adapted many times since Berlin’s essay. The basic point, as the quote states, is that the world is divided between entities or individuals that are either generalists or specialists; ‘foxes’ that are good at many different things, whereas ‘hedgehogs’ specialize.
One recent deployment of the hedgehog-and-fox parable is its use in Jim Collins’ best-selling business book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. Collins’ book provides an analysis of the features of high-performing companies, as measured by their track record of sustained excellence in comparison to their competitors. He finds that a ‘hedgehog concept’- a central organizing principle and understanding of what they do particularly well- is a key to these outstanding companies:
Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent.
Collins’ finding resonates with Maliasili Initiatives’ experiences. We find that outstanding organizations, focused on results and achieving large-scale impact, also tend to be hedgehogs. A focus on solving a particular problem, and refining a specific methodology that produces consistent results, is in line with the ‘hedgehog concept.’ This kind of focus characterizes an organization like Lion Guardians, with its rigorous approach to resolving conflicts between people and lions, or Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative, which its replicable methods for community forest management.
A challenge in the conservation and natural resources field, which we encounter frequently, is that the multifaceted social, institutional and environmental challenges that organizations encounter tends to encourage them to be foxes. Organizations working in conservation-and-development often become involved in numerous different interventions, trying to solve all sorts of problems that affect their work or the communities where they work. This ‘fox’ approach often results in an organization doing many things that are useful, and even excelling at a few of them, but not developing a refined and proven set of methods or a systematic approach to solving a problem. Organizations become ‘foxy’ generalists, trapped in project-based ways of working that are trying to achieve a dozen different things all at once.
In our facilitation work around organizational strategy, we have come to preach simplicity and focus. We eschew conventional strategic planning approaches in our field, that tend to result in a proliferation of objectives and programs, and as a result wind up not being very ‘strategic’ at all.
Most of the strategic plans that we encounter that have been developed by other organizations tend to be sprawling and unfocused, often with more content than the organization owning the plan can realistically execute. Even where organizations are more focused, they refrain from making difficult choices about the allocation of their resources, or about honesty in terms of what they really do well and what roles are best left to other organizations. We frequently ask our partners: ‘What do you want to be great at?’ Building a sustainable and impactful organization is hard work, and that much harder if an organization is not focused on trying to be great at something specific.
The below illustration is adapted from Collins’ ‘hedgehog concept’ (which he also calls ‘simplicity in the three circles’); we have changed the terminology while keeping the emphasis on three basic overlapping circles that are central to determining an organization’s strategic focus:
- What passion or drive underpins the mission of your organization or business?
- Where do your skills or comparative advantages lie? What can you do better than anyone else and be great at? (As Collins points out, a key to building a great organization or company is distinguishing between what you want to do and what you really are good at- and can become the best at.)
- Do the economics work? In other words, once you choose what you want to do and what you can be great at doing, you need to ensure that the market (funding) exists for that work and you can execute in an affordable and sustainable manner.
The conservation-and-development field needs more hedgehogs- highly focused, results-oriented, and scalable organizations and social enterprises. So what does your organization want to be great at?