The hedgehog and the beetle

Some years ago I had the privilege to attend a workshop run by Jim Collins, one of the most successful leadership gurus, whose books such as ‘Built to Last’ and ‘Good to Great’ have sold several million copies. Collins shared with us his findings of how good companies had been turned into great ones, outperforming the market for at least 15 years. I still remember the lively presentation of his ‘hedgehog concept’. Collins based the concept on Isaiah Berlin’s essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’ which draws on an ancient Greek parable. He presented us with a wonderful series of pictures of the various ways in which the fox tries to outwit the hedgehog. But whatever the clever fox comes up with: the hedgehog just rolls up, turning itself into a ball of sharp spikes making it impossible for the fox to attack. The hedgehog always wins. What are the lessons from this little parable? In ‘Good to Great’ Collins writes: “Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. (…) Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything.”7. He recommends: “The key is to understand what your organization can be the best in the world at, and equally important what it cannot be the best at – not what it ‘wants’ to be the best at.”8

This all made a lot of sense to me, except for the picture of the hedgehog. Here comes my version of the hedgehog story: In ancient Greece, where the original parable was created, the hedgehog had indeed a better defence than the armoury of the fox or many others among its potential attackers: rolling up and waiting until the aggressor gave up was a very successful strategy. And this effective approach has helped hedgehogs survive for the last 15 million years – until the 20th century when a new enemy appeared: the car. When I was a child, my family like most others in Germany who could afford a car, had a Volkswagen ‘beetle’. And when we drove in our little beetle we saw many dead hedgehogs on the roads, killed by cars like the one we drove. The situation became so bad that the hedgehog was threatened with extinction. Obviously the one thing the hedgehog was best at – rolling up and waiting until the threat disappeared – was no longer working. Hedgehogs very urgently had to come up with a more effective approach to self-defence. Hedgehogs survived because they learned just in time that they had to diversify their defensive strategies and that the right strategy to cope with cars was to run rather than roll up. I recently read somewhere that, when crossing roads, hedgehogs run faster the wider the road is: they have learned a lot.

I told this story at my table which caused some amusement and laughter. Collins strolled over and wanted to be part of the fun, so I repeated my little tale. He liked it and I had to recount the story to the whole audience; with Collins commenting that he might have to reconsider his metaphor. I later found out that there are no hedgehogs living in North America, thus to Americans the Greek version of the story seemed perfectly logical. I did not think about the hedgehog story for years – until I started working on the topic of disruptive change. Disruptive change is exactly what the beetle brought for the hedgehog: A dramatic change which threatened the hedgehog’s very survival. Within a few years’ time the perfect defence strategy of the past had become the worst thing to do. Disruptive change has been building up in our sector and it has seriously started affecting ICSOs. How can ICSOs prepare themselves for disruptive change and what strategies may they apply once disruption arrives?