In his famous essay, “The Hedgehog & the Fox”, Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs & foxes, based upon an Ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in & day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, & crafty-the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog on the other hand, is a dowdier creature. He waddles around, going about his simple day, searching for food.The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up & thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes, pointing outward in all directions. The fox, bounding towards his prey, sees the hedgehog defence & calls off the attack.

Retreating back into the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog & the fox takes place & despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes & hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time & see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organising idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies & guides everything.For the hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.Hedgehogs see what is essential, & ignore the rest.

Professor Marvin Bressler, has pointed out the power of the hedgehog. “You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs.” Freud & the unconscious, Darwin & natural selection, Marx & class struggle, Einstein & relativity, Adam Smith & the division of labour- they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world & simplified it.If you want to be a hedgehog, you need an understanding of what you can be the best at. You may be very competent at something but you need to do what you can be the best at.

There is a difference between a core business & the Hedgehog Concept. Just because something is your core business- just because you’ve been doing it for years or even decades- does not mean that you can be the best in the world at it. And if you cannot be the best in the world at your core business, then your core business cannot form the basis of your Hedgehog Concept.

Clearly, a Hedgehog Concept is not the same as a core competence. You can have competence at something but not necessarily have the potential be the best in the world at it. To use an analogy, consider the young person who gets straight A’s in high school calculus & scores high on the math part of the SAT, demonstrating a core competence at mathematics. Does that mean the person should become a mathematician? Not necessarily . Suppose now that this young person goes off to college, enrols in math courses & continues to earn A’s, yet encounters people who are genetically encoded for math. As one student said after his experience, ” It would take me three hours to finish the final. Then there were those who finished the same final in thirty minutes & earned an A+. Their brains are just wired differently. I could be a very competent mathematician, but I soon realised that I could never be one of the best.” That young person might still get pressure from parents & friends to continue with math saying, “But you are so good at it.” Just like our young person, many people have been pulled or have fallen into careers where they can never attain complete mastery & fulfilment. Suffering from the curse of competence but lacking a clear Hedgehog Concept, they rarely become great at what they do.

To become a great company one has to transcend the curse of competence. It requires discipline to say,” Just because we are good at it-just because we are making money & generating growth-doesn’t necessarily mean we can become the best at it.” Great companies allocate resources to a few arenas where they could potentially be the best.