Where to focus? Try the “Hedgehog Principle”.

I was recently mentoring a tech worker who’d been caught in the recent wave of layoffs we’ve been seeing in the media.  The conversation was decidedly focused on what sorts of new challenges she should pursue.  We covered options ranging from becoming a freelance technology consultant, to opening a franchised childcare center.  During this interesting conversation I was reminded of a key principle from the seminal book, “Good to Great”:  The Hedgehog Principle.

The Hedgehog Principle – Source: Jim Collins, “Good to Great”.

Whether you find yourself among the scores of tech workers thinking through your transition, or you’re an executive making difficult choices about your operations, The Hedgehog Principle represents a simple, yet insightful filter to help you make better decisions around where to focus your most valuable resource: time. 

The Hedgehog Principle is based on a parable by Greek poet Archilochus that states, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” The idea behind the principle is that you should focus your resources and energy on that one thing you or your company are best at or passionate about—the thing that makes you unique. In other words, strive to become an expert in something and use that expertise to differentiate yourself from the competition.  To add one additional but important dimension, that activity must also align to your economic objectives.

Identify Your Passion and Skillset 

The first step in using the Hedgehog Principle is to identify what it is that you are passionate about and what skillsets you possess. What do you have a deep interest in? What do you find yourself thinking about during your free time? What are your greatest strengths? Answering these questions will give you clarity on what it is that drives you and where your skillset lies, which will help guide the rest of your journey. If you’re not passionate about what you’re doing, either individually or as an enterprise, it is impossible to maintain a competitive advantage over those who will bring that passion to the table.

Focus On Doing One Thing Really Well

Once you have identified your passion and skillset, it’s time to start focusing on doing one thing really well. If there are multiple areas of interest, narrow them down until only one remains. This one thing should be something that both aligns with your passions as well as utilizes your current skill set or something new, but achievable within a reasonable amount of time. Focusing on one area allows for laser-like precision when developing new strategies or plans for success in this area.

Check the Economics

You have the passion and the skill, but does your strategy make economic sense?  Can you achieve your personal income targets with this approach?  Will your business achieve its targeted ROI?  Or will this strategy detract or cannibalize your resources, taking needed attention from more profitable pursuits?

Develop Strategies For Moving Forward

Now that the focus has been narrowed down, it’s time to develop strategies for moving forward. To keep your tactics aligned, I’d offer the following five step:

  1. Craft your mission statement: Where are you going? How will you know you got there?
  2. Where will you play: Leveraging the work from your Hedgehog Principle, can you identify a specific niche where your expertise will shine?
  3. How will you win: What are your or your offering’s key differentiators? What are your financial objectives?
  4. What capability gaps do you need to fill before you’re ready? What systems must be in place?
  5. How will you measure your progress along the way?

The Hedgehog Principle is a helpful filter for anyone making difficult decisions about where to focus their time and energy. If you find yourself facing a major transition in your career, ask yourself if there’s one thing you can focus on that will help you make the most of your skills and experience. And if you’re an executive making choices about your company’s operations, consider whether there’s one big thing you can do to create value for your customers and shareholders. By simplifying your decision-making process and focusing on what you do best, you can increase your chances of achieving great things.

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