There is a saying attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus that goes,

“The Fox knows many things, but the Hedgehog knows one great thing.”

In his famous essay. “The hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes, based upon an ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” This is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty, the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a downdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his simple day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.

The fox waits in cunning silence at this juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I have got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lighting fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and 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 toward his prey, sees the hedgehog defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and 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 and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and 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 and guides everything.

It is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely critical.

Just because you are capable of doing something doesn’t mean you can be the best at that thing.

Be the best in what you are capable of being the best at.

To use an analogy, consider the young person who gets straight A’s in high school maths and science and also scores high in matric maths exam, 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 university, enrolls for a degree in mathematics, and continues to get A’s, yet encounters people who are genetically encoded for math. As one such student said after his experience, “It would take me three hours to finish the final exam. The there were those who finished the same exam in thirty minutes and earned an A+. Their brains are just wired differently. I could be a very competent mathematician, but I soon realised I could never be one of the best.” That young person might still get pressure from parents and friends to continue with math, saying, “But you are so good at it.” Just like our young person, never attain complete mastery and fulfillment. Suffering from the curse of competence but lacking a clear Hedgehog Concept, they rarely become great at what they do.

To go from a good company to a great company requires transcending the curse of competence. It requires the discipline to say:

“Just because we are good at it, just because we are making money and generating growth, doesn’t necessarily mean we can become the best at it”

Great companies companies understand that doing what you are good at will only make you good, focusing solely on what you can potentially do better than any other company is the only path to greatness.

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