The Hedgehog Concept in Good to Great by Jim Collins can transform your life as well as your business.
Finding your Personal Hedgehog is the key to unlocking your potential and discovering what you’re really meant to do.
Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated with the latest research and information.
Is there a formula to the success of companies like Walgreens and Gillette?
In the highly influential business book, Good to Great by Jim Collins, the author scours examples of great companies to figure out what traits they have in common.
What he discovers is the Hedgehog Concept.
What a Spiny Rodent Can Teach Us About Business Success
Jim Collins argues that the best companies in each industry stand at the intersection of three crucial questions. They are:
- What can we be the best in the world at?
- What drives our economic engine?
- What are we deeply passionate about?
The most successful companies find alignment on each of these three dimensions. They steadfastly pursue the overlap between these three fundamental questions. Collins calls it the Hedgehog Concept.
As I was helping people to think about starting their own businesses, changing jobs, or changing roles within their current organizations, I kept having them go through the Hedgehog exercise with their own marketable skills and passions.
That’s how I realized the Hedgehog Concept doesn’t just apply to business. The Hedgehog Concept applies to you personally.
Because we’re often unclear on what type of work makes us happy, we get stuck in analysis paralysis whenever we think about making a change.
It’s difficult to know where to start if you don’t know what you should be doing. What kind of work would you simultaneously be good at, make you fulfilled, and keep a roof over your head?
The answer to that important question can be found when you find your Personal Hedgehog. And your Personal Hedgehog can point you to what you’re really meant to be doing.
The 3 Circles of Your Personal Hedgehog
Each of the three circles of the Hedgehog Concept has an analogous question when it comes to you individually. Answering the three questions honestly, and striving to do work at the intersection, is how you apply the Hedgehog Concept to your personal life.
1. What can you be best in the world at?
Long-time readers might recall that in version 1.0 of this article, I backed off Jim Collins’ wording of “best in the world” and settled for “better than others” instead.
I’ve changed my mind on this one.
Aiming to be the best in the world at something general, like basketball or swimming, is still probably not realistic for 99.99999999% of the people reading this (unless you’re Lebron James or Michael Phelps, in which case, hello and thanks for visiting Agile Lifestyle).
Being the best in the world also isn’t strictly necessary. You can be a relative expert at something and still do meaningful work. In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, cartoonist Scott Adams argues that “leveraging multiple mediocre skills” can lead to extraordinary success—especially if that combination is rare.
But the reason I changed my mind and decided to revert to Jim Collins’ wording actually comes from Seth Godin.
In The Dip, Godin smartly argues that being “the best in the world” of a very, very specific niche is still a valuable position to hold:
“Best” as in “best for them, right now, based on what they believe and what they know.”
And “in the world” as in “their world, the world they have access to.”
So, if I’m looking for a freelance copy editor, I want the best copy editor in English, who’s available, who can find a way to work with me at a price I can afford. That’s my “best in the world.” If I want a hernia doctor, I want the doctor who is best because she’s recommended by my friends or colleagues and because she fits my picture of what a great doctor is. That, and she has to be in my town and have a slot open. So “world” is a pretty flexible term.
Essentially, Adams and Godin are getting at the same point: What compelling skills or combination of skills can you offer to people?
Don’t confuse this with natural talent or ability. Yes, it would be nice if you were genetically inclined to shoot a basketball with tremendous accuracy or perform complex feats of mathematical ingenuity. But skills can be developed as well. There’s a good chance you’ve acquired many skills over the years that you didn’t come straight out of the womb with.
Be specific. You’ll eventually have to convince someone to pay for your product or service. It helps to narrow it down. “Accounting” is nice, but “corporate accounting” is better, and “discovering corporate malfeasance through application of forensic accounting techniques” is best.
2. What drives your economic engine?
Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up when they go out in search of their “dream job.”
Many of the skills you have, like “spinning a plate on my finger” or “anchoring my flip-cup team” aren’t very marketable.
(But hey, surprise me.)
The key idea with this circle is marketability. What will other people pay you for? What skill could earn you a sustainable income?
Marketable skills are geared towards helping other people solve their problems. So if you’re an accountant, one aspect of your skillset is simply helping people understand their financial picture, which comes from a lack of knowledge or organization. Or helping them balance their books, which comes from a lack of computational ability.
Whether you start a consulting service or create an information product or design an app is up to you. The method of delivering your expertise is less important than whether a market exists for your skill.
Look for pain points and see if you have a skillset that helps alleviate that pain. The focus here isn’t on you, but on what other people need.
What drives your economic engine ultimately comes from how you add value to peoples lives—how you solve their problems, entertain, or delight them.
The actual business model you use deserves your utmost attention, of course, but you’ll never get there if you can’t actually identify the people who need what you’re offering.
3. What are you deeply passionate about?
The key to this circle is passion. Be honest with yourself. What really excites you? What motivates you to get up in the morning?
People who point out that passion isn’t enough are right of course. Passion is necessary, but not sufficient to have a truly successful career. You need all three circles of the Hedgehog.
You have to be passionate about some aspect of your venture, or you won’t have the motivation to slog through the tough times. But passion alone isn’t enough. You have to be able to craft a marketable offer from a real skillset that you have. Chris Guillebeau refers to this as “the Convergence” in his latest book, The $100 Startup.
One way to think about this question of passion is this:
If money were no object, what would you spend the rest of your life doing?
You might be imagining beaches and fancy restaurants. But chances are, you would get tired of the life of leisure after a few months. That’s why many early retirees end up going back to work, even though they don’t need the money!
The truth is we all need progress in our lives to feel like we’re leading a meaningful existence. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.” This is what Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer refer to as The Progress Principle in their book of the same name.
Passion and progress exist in a virtuous loop—self-reinforcing and mutually strengthening one another. That’s at the heart of this misunderstanding about passion’s role in work life—passion is a process, not a starting point or an end goal in and of itself.
The Problem With Merely Having “a Job”
Most high achievers live at the intersection of the skills and marketability circles, which I’ve called “a Job” on the graphic.
Because you’ve been a high achiever all your life, you’ve acquired a set of marketable skills like analyzing the law, diagnosing medical conditions, organizing business accounts, predicting stock market fluctuations, etc.
You might be paid well for applying this skill. You are also good at it, so that makes you feel like you’re contributing and being useful.
But here’s the problem: You have no passion for what you do. There’s no spark, no fire that’s burning inside you for your job or career.
We make up for this by trying to have hobbies and interests that activate our passions, but this leads to schizophrenic lives where our work personalities are different from our regular personalities. The dreaded “work-life balance” problem is only a problem if you aren’t living authentically in all phases of your life.
I’ve said before that digital natives don’t see work-life balance as a problem in the same way their parents did. They want to do meaningful work.
That means uniting their marketable skills and their passions.
That means finding their Personal Hedgehogs.
Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are key to breaking out of the trap of meaninglessness. Where your purpose comes from—internal or external to the job—is less important than having one.
Ignoring Your Hedgehog Is Not a Viable Option
Finding your Hedgehog is not easy. It requires asking tough questions about what you’re good at, what value you bring to others, and what you want to spend the rest of your life doing.
Finding your Hedgehog requires closing your internal feedback loop and listening to your true hopes and dreams again.
After applying the Hedgehog Concept to businesses, Jim Collins himself points the way to the Personal Hedgehog concept in Good to Great:
Suppose you were able to construct a work life that meets the following three tests: First, you are doing work for which you have a genetic or God-given talent, and perhaps you could become one of the best in the world at applying that talent. (“I feel that I was just born to be doing this.”) Second, you are well paid for what you do. (“I get paid to do this? Am I dreaming?”) Third, you are doing work you are passionate about and absolutely love to do, enjoying the actual process for its own sake. (“I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into my daily work, and I really believe in what I’m doing.”) If you could drive toward the intersection of those three circles and translate that intersection into a simple, crystalline concept that guided your life choices, you’d have a Hedgehog Concept for yourself.
Start today by brainstorming a list for each circle. Write everything that comes to mind. Don’t edit yourself. Be truthful.
As you begin to notice convergences, you may be surprised by what your Hedgehog says you should be doing with your life.
I suggest you listen. Life’s too short not to.
A version of this article first appeared on June 2, 2012.
Top image by The Hadfields.