Learning from the hedgehog

Let’s now come back to Jim Collins’ hedgehog concept. Is the hedgehog metaphor wrong or Collins’ concept incomplete? We believe the second assumption is correct: Over an unimaginably long period of about 15 million years the hedgehog successfully stuck to its one defensive strategy: roll up, show your spikes and wait. Then, in evolutionary terms, in the blink of an eye, the car arrived and what had been the perfect strategy to date turned into a suicidal one. The hedgehog learned, adapted, changed and survived. As long as no disruptive change occurred, sticking to the one thing the hedgehog knew best was a very successful strategy. When the car appeared, relying on millions of years of successful strategy was no longer feasible. The hedgehog had to forget about its sophisticated armoury and seek its salvation in something it was much less well equipped for: running. Kodak faced a very similar situation: the company had to forget about decades of market dominance by sticking to chemical film and forget about films altogether. The hedgehog managed to reinvent itself and survived, Kodak did not and collapsed. In our terms the hedgehog is a successful conservative survivor and Kodak is one that failed.

But why were all the companies in Collins’ research that beat the market over the long-term successful hedgehogs? Probably because in times were your field of work is not affected by disruption the hedgehog strategy is indeed the best one. Collins’ team looked at companies over the period from 1965 to 1995 when innovation was not as fast and furious as it is today. It would also be of interest to look at failed companies over that period: one might find some strong hedgehogs that failed, BECAUSE they stuck to their hedgehog strategy as the external conditions changed dramatically. So I would suggest adding a chapter on disruptive change to Collins’ concept pointing out that while hedgehog companies are enormously successful when not threatened by disruptive change, they are especially vulnerable when disruptive change occurs, just because they tend to fiercely stick to the one thing they are best at. When times change abruptly this can be a very big liability as Kodak found out to its detriment. So, the hedgehog is the perfect metaphor because the animal was successful not only for 15 years, like Collins’ companies, but for 15 million, and it shows that even a hedgehog can survive disruptive change, provided it is prepared to deviate from the one thing it is best at. For ICSOs the lesson is: don’t be too self-confident because you have been successful for so many years. When disruption arrives your glorious past may turn out to be your greatest liability. It may stop you from spotting disruption early enough and prevent you from entering into painful change at the point when the existence of the organisation is under threat.

Over the next decade or two ICSOs will most likely be pushed out of their present, rather comfortable state. But rather than trying to cling to what they have, they should embrace the new challenges out there which demand their involvement and offer great opportunities to advance towards ICSOs’ missions. Today, ICSOs are slowly starting to change. They will have to become much more ambitious, innovative and courageous in their development in order to remain relevant to our planet’s future. In the next chapter we will explore some of the major challenges which the world is facing and which ICSOs cannot afford to ignore.