Good To Great

I hate to read corporate books and philosophies of what makes a great leader and a great company. Even though Good to Great belongs in this genre, I simply love it, because it is in total line with how I have thought for most my adult life. In order to be great (as individual or company) you have to have a hedgehog concept. What is that? Here’s a quote from the book

What is a hedgehog concept and how do you get one? Another quote

Is it easy to answer the three questions in these three circles? No it’s not. It is something that usually takes years, although for some people it happens in a moment of great awareness. Another quote

[list]Warning: I’m now leaving the safe ground of the book and writing my own thoughts.

So the nirvana, is having a hedgehog concept. Exactly what is a hedgehog concept, and could you show me some examples so that I can get it?

One example is Shinichi Suzuki. Are you familiar with Suzuki method for teaching children how to play violin and other instruments? Take a look at to see Suzuki in action.

It is now a world famous method used all over the planet. But how did it happen? On day when Suzuki was 33 years old he made an observation. All Japanese children speak Japanese. Here’s a quote from his book Nurtured by Love.

From his observation Suzuki created a hedgehog concept which he pursued the rest of his life, with great success. What about the three circles?

  1. What you can be the best in the world? Suzuki was excited because he saw that he could teach music using the mother-tounge method to develop the potential in children to a very high level. Few were doing this at the time of his revelation, so yes, he could become best in the world.

  2. What drives your economic engine. Suzuki was not driven by money (even though he got money as a side effect), but rather by opening a world of beauty to young children, that they might have greater enjoyment in their lives, and develop their potential. As Suzuki says

  1. What you are deeply passionate about. Suzuki was passionate about music and developing the human potential, especially children’s. By developing his method and teaching it to children he could work with his passion full time.

Note that Suzuki’s mother-tounge observation excited him, but not other people. That’s because it had a relevance to his passion in life (music and helping children) together with his background (he was a violin student himself but gave up the studies when he realized that he could not become one of the great violinists). In fact had his passion and background been something else, he probably would not made the observation in the first place. I bet that if you took a close look at his life, a good proportion of it prepared him for making the crucial observation and then manifesting it in the world. Let’s try to formulate Suzuki’s hedgehog concept.

The mother tongue method is perfect for developing children’s potential in music. By mimicking that method we see the importance of the following:

A hedgehog concept is very simple to understand and implement, once you have it. But the process of getting to it is everything but simple.

This means that you, have to find your own hedgehog concept, that fits your passion, and your background. You can’t take other people’s hedgehog concept and put full time work at it for the next 70 years like Suzuki did (he lived 100 years). Only your own hedgehog concept will give you the required energy to carry on for decades of persistent joyful and at many times frustrating work.

Warning: My own thoughts and interpretations continue. Do not blame the book for them.

So what is this hedgehog concept? Is it some kind of the meaning of your life?

No, not at all. According to the book a hedgehog concept is a simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding about the intersection of the three circles:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at.
  2. What drives your “economic” engine.
  3. What you are deeply passionate about.

Thus a hedgehog concept is just a simple model of some part of reality, that resonates within you. Having such a concept can turn you from a fox into a hedgehog. This helps you to channel all your energies on one goal, often without caring so much over the short term results and frustrations.

Mohandas Gandhi who had his revelation when he was thrown out of a train in South Africa, created his hedgehog concept of nonviolent resistance. Having his hedgehog concept transformed him from Mohandas, a second-rate lawyer, to Mahatma, the great spirit. Here’s a quote

Is it important to find your own hedgehog concept?

In a sense yes. Otherwise you might say as Eckart Tolle’s father did when he was 81 years old. He said “I feel that my life hasn’t started yet”. Without it you might live a good life, but not a great life. And the difference is huge.

OK, how do I find my own hedgehog concept?

Ah, that is THE QUESTION! To be continued…

So the question is how do you find your own hedgehog concept. As suggested by the book you find it by answering the three questions:

  1. What you can be the best in the world at.
  2. What drives your “economic” engine.
  3. What you are deeply passionate about.

By looking at the questions it should be obvious, that you yourself must answer these questions. I certainly can’t because I do not know what you are deeply passionate about and what you are good at, and what drives your “economics”. Economics in this context should be understood as that which you value the most. It could be money, but might as well be recognition, health, self development, helping others, understanding how something works, bringing something unique into this world, and so on.

Even though I can’t help you find your hedgehog concept, I will take a journey into finding my own. This might give you some clues.

Warning: This is personal.

In order to answer the three questions I must get to know myself. What’s the best way to do that? Looking at Amazon I came upon this book: “Do More Great Work: Stop the Busywork. Start the Work That Matters.”, by Michael Bungay Stainer. (BTW Tim Hurson was a contributor to this book).

It looked like a decent book, 92% 5-star reviews and 8% 4-star reviews . It has 15 exercises to help you find out what great work means to you. So, I worked with these exercises and gained some insights.

In one of the exercises Stainer asks the reader to think back and remember three or four peek moments over the course of ones life. You might consider writing about your own peak moments. As you will see, they tell a lot about you, and they help you to answer the three questions.

  1. Mental Rehearsal.
    In in Elementary School, I had the highest marks in Mathematics. The other students always said that I would be a Mathematics Professor. When I was in high school, I continued with highest marks in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry, but not when it came to soft subjects like civics, religion, philosophy and history. There was one girl who had higher marks on the tests in those subjects. I didn’t know why, because I was sure to have prepared for longer time. She knew something I didn’t, of that I was sure. I thought about it for the first year, but to no avail. In the second year the same thing. But in the third year I had an idea. When I was preparing I used to write down the important things on the paper. I observed that it took a long time. So instead I changed tactics. I opened one page in the book, observed the important points, closed the page and tried to render the points mentally. Some I managed, but not others. Then I opened the page again, looked at those that I didn’t manage, closed the book, and tried once more. I kept at it until I could render all the important points on a page. Then I continued to the next page. This was a much faster way then trying to write down things. It was much harder work, but in short time an incredible amount could be learned. From that day on, I had the highest grade in soft subjects to. I felt good about myself, as much for beating the girl and getting the high grades, as for inventing an efficient learning method.

  2. Fermat’s Little Theorem
    One winter when I was 18 years old, I read a book called “Men of Mathematics” by E.T. Bell. In one chapter he mentions Fermat’s little theorem. Any number n raised to the power of any prime number p minus the number n itself is always divisible by p. In other words p divides n^p - n. For instance 3 divides 4^3-4=60. Bell said that any person that can prove the theorem in one month or less, is destined to be a mathematician. I took upon me to prove it, and after much frustration I succeeded after one week. The decisive observation was that n^p can be written as ((n-1)+1)^p and then I could easily prove it using the binomial theorem and induction. I was rather pleased with myself.

  3. Hand Terminal
    My first job after graduating was at Satt Control, a company of about 300 employees, that made control systems for the industry. The guy whose been responsible for the control system of autoclaves was leaving and I took over his maintenance. The programming was done with in assembler, for Motorola’s 6809 processor. I was also to embark on a new project, a control system for Sandvik and corresponding info gathering system. But just as the project started one of the customers for autoclaves said that there was some strange behavior with the hand terminal. Hand terminal was a device that you could connect to the control systems of autoclaves. The peculiar behavior only happened once a week or so, and it seemed that the hand terminal sent wrong signals at those times. I’ve looked at the program and after the three days I came to conclusion that the program was not to blame, but it must have something to do with the hardware. My boss came to see why I wasn’t attending the new project, and when I told him, he promised to help me, since I was a new employee. But after spending a couple of hours he saw that the problem was much tougher then he anticipated and left me to work it out on my own. I managed to borrow a logic analyzer and after measuring with it for two days, I saw that the problem was due to a “smart” hardware design that used one wire for two different signals, and sometimes especially when the hand terminal got heated the signals collided causing the problem. The solution was simple. I just added a software delay between the two signals and the problem was solved. I then got involved with the new project and forgot the hand terminal. Much later I learned that the hand terminal was not just used for the control system of the autoclaves, but for all control systems of the company and that the problem with the hand terminal has been known for years but that nobody was able to solve it.

  4. Sandvik
    After finishing the hand terminal project I started the Sandvik project. My job was to program a PDP 11 computer in Fortran. It was connected to a bunch of control systems and gathered data. As I looked at my task, I identified the communication with the control systems as the bottleneck. I started by doing small dummy projects where I learned ins and outs of how the communication worked. When I was satisfied, I turned into programming the information system itself, and it was much easier work. However I continued to do small dummy projects where I tested each difficulty in separation. When the delivery day came, I not only hoped that my program would work, I knew that it would work. The installation was a breeze and I returned home to a new project. After a couple of months my contact person from Sandvik called and said that there was a problem with my program. I knew that he was an amateur programmer so I asked him if he had changed anything in my program. He assured me that it wasn’t the case. After looking for a couple of hours at my program and trying to match it against the problem description, I came to conclusion that my program should work. I phoned to my contact person and asked ask him again, this time with a determined voice, if he had changed anything. “Well I have in one place”, he confessed, “but that can’t have these consequences”. Of course it did have those consequences and when we installed my old program everything worked as it should. And the program did work for several years, without me having to change anything since delivery. I am still proud of it.

  5. Alan Kay
    I think it was in 1986. There was a conference about object oriented programming in Frankfurt. The keynote speaker was Alan Kay, the chief architect behind Smalltalk-80. His speech blew my mind. He didn’t just speak of object oriented programming but about much larger topic including paradigm shifts in science, Piaget’s psychology, Galway’s the inner game of tennis and much more. When I came home at the company I was working for I wrote a much appreciated report, and I started to give seminars about Alan Kay’s ideas. At that time I also learned about Theodor Nelson’s, Douglas Engelbart’s and Vannevar Bush’s ideas. So I enlarged my seminars to include those ideas as well. At that time, I read a book called " The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M. I. T", by Stewart Brand and was much impressed. I went to visit Media Lab at MIT and did talk to several people including Nicholas Negroponte. I also managed to visit Douglas Engelbart and speak to him. In 1994 I visited USA again, and heard about Mosaic and the Internet. I was on fire and took those ideas as well in my seminar. I could now give presentation from 2 minutes up to 3 hours about the new ideas, and I took every opportunity to speak. My reputation grew and I was invited to many companies and conferences, and I even won several awards for best presentation. Later those contacts helped me start my own company, but that’s another story.

Now Stainer asks us to look at the stories and try to find emerging themes. Here are some themes I found:

  • I was working alone. Very focused and self reliant.
  • I was solving tough problems. It was often painful frustrating work, but I was determined to solve them.
  • I worked in a methodical and systematic manner.
  • I tried to understand the core of the problem, and went often back to fundamentals.
  • I did not jump over difficulties.

These themes, did surprise me. I did not think that it would involve tough problems and frustrating work. I also didn’t expect that working alone was my cup of tea. But that is what the themes say, and if I’m about to find my hedgehog concept, I must take them into account.

  1. In the next exercise, Stainer wants us to describe how we are at our best. The first step is to list 20 words that describe us when we are doing great work. I came up with the following list
  1. In the second step Stainer asks us to narrowed down this list to just 10 words that best describe us when we are in the flow. I narrowed the list to
  1. In the third step Stainer asks us to contrast our words with the OK-but-not-great behavior that you recognize to be true about yourself when you’re not at your best. My list now looks as

Your hedgehog concept must allow you to be mostly in the I’M THIS column and prevent you from being in the NOT THAT column.

You know how it is when you show old 8 mm family movies, to visiting friends. You don’t understand why everybody’s yawning, you are having such a great time. Maybe these posts are like that, only I can’t see you yawning. Although I will continue with my quest for my own hedgehog concept, I do not want to bore other people with personal stuff. If it is as I suspect, I will stop here. But if, on the other hand, someone, thinks that these post are of some value, I’ll continue. All the best, Bob

Hi ya!

Although I am an EXTREME bohemian and hate lists—and devising any lists that confine my cosmic existential experimentation in any way—I have to say, I found your posts interesting. I, in fact, passed your posting to my daughter, an opera singer. She composes, writes, sings, and actually, can do most anything extremely well, so she is constantly at odds with herself. She’s going out to buy the book. So, there you go. You never know when an inspiration of the heart has some meaning for another. :slight_smile:


Thanks for the kind words. I’ll leave the exercises in “Do More Great Work” for the moment and talk about question three; What you are deeply passionate about? In 1918, when Einstein was 39 years old he gave a talk at the Physical Society in Berlin.

In this quote Einstein talks of passion, when he says “The state of mind which enables a man to do work of this kind is akin to that of the religious worshiper or the lover; the daily effort comes from no deliberate intention or program, but straight from the heart.” Passion, is not to show off, nor is it to make money.

So, take a look at the work you are doing now, or the work that you have in mind, and ask yourself what the reason is for doing it. If the reason is to show your supremacy, or for making money or good living or some other utilitarian purpose, then know that this is not your true passion. Gandhi’s and Suzuki’s reasons were none of those things. But if the reason is passion, then it resonates in your whole being, and as Einstein says, it comes straight from the heart.

In my own case I don’t feel guilty of the first sin. I seldom chose something in order to show that I am superior in anything, first because I don’t think that I am, and second because I don’t have that need. In fact when people say something positive about me, I just feel embarrassed and would like to hide somewhere.

But I am guilty when it comes to the second sin. I have often chosen work for utilitarian purposes. In this I’m not alone. Many of us want to give our loved ones a good life, and often we choose work that is “in demand”, but not necessarily our passion. The wisdom of this is questionable, because if we don’t choose our passion, we don’t feel very well, and when we do not feel very well, everybody around us suffer. I do sometimes regret that I have not followed the call of my passion in my youth, but like Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” :wink: .

Going back to to the exercises in “Do More Great Work”. In this exercise Stainer ask us to list the people we admire and their characteristics . With this exercise we can tap the power of role models. In fact the people we admire will more then anything, reveal our true passion. Here are my heroes

I found it interesting to classify them

Just from this list I can see that my 4 great interests are Mathematics, Spirituality, Programming and Self Development.

Now Stainer asks us to pick 5 names that we admire most and to list 4 characteristics of each. My list is

What are the recurring themes here?

These are the characteristics, that I admire and would like to have.

Dear Bob,

I’ve enjoyed reading your reflections above, but can’t let them pass without making the misery-guts observation that Good to Great, the book you started with and which headlines this thread, has become quite notorious in the business-book industry because numbers of its subjects have sunk, some catastrophically, since it was written: for example, Fannie Mae, Circuit City and Bank of America.

That’s not to say that there may not be certain interesting lessons to learn from business books like Good to Great, but speaking personally, I think there are some such books - this may be one - that seem to leave a curse on their subjects. There are several other examples of books where the subject firms went downhill from the moment the book was published…

I suspect there’s only one lesson: pray that your employer is not persuaded to become a business-book case-study. :slight_smile:


Hi Hugh,

I totally agree with you. Personally I don’t like business books, and it was not the business aspect that caught my attention. Instead it was the aspects that I could utilize it on a personal level. I do believe that the hedgehog principle is extremely useful, and that it’s worth while to find one. As for the Fannie May, Bank of America and others I was not interested in them while reading the book, and I’m still not interested in them. I don’t think you can capture the complexity and dynamics of a large company with a few principles, like many business books like you to believe. On the personal level, on the other hand, simple powerful principles do work. In fact, you have to have them, if you’re in for great work.

I have worked for large companies, and all I can say, that the larger the company the more chance for bureaucracy, dirty tricks behind your back, fierce fight the pecking order place, senseless meetings, and so on. For the moment, I don’t have an employer, but work as a consultant :smiley: . In this way I avoid much of the bad side of the politics within a large company. I certainly don’t recommend every aspect of the book, but the book has a few real strong insights. All the best Bob.

I’ll now turn my attention to the first question.

(Actually I don’t like the phrasing “best in the world”. I think that correct phrasing should be “so good at it, that it will make a great difference in your life”. But I’ll leave the original phrasing since it’s shorter, although I will give it the meaning of my own. )
Although we might be good at many things, we should only seek what we are good at within our passion. Since my passion is the four areas mathematics, programming, spirituality and self development, I must look at what I’m good at within those areas*.

*One warning. When you evaluate different alternatives, don’t let the two sins (fame and money) bias your evaluation. If you think that your choice will bring you recognition or fame of some sorts, then your choice has been biased, by the first sin. If you think that your choice will bring you money, then your choice has been biased, by the second sin.

In the previous post I decided to find my hedgehog concept within the area of programming. The niche I’m looking for must be confined within:

Warning: I’m going into stuff that will interest very few. Later I’ll come back to more general theme, like how to clear the deck for the long journey ahead, but for now, just skip it if it’s not something that interest you.
OK, I have now my general direction, but it’s too early to form a hedgehog concept. However I must take some concrete steps, in order to be able to form a better view of the situation. I know I will use Apples developer tools and maybe some third party tools. Even though I do not need the speed of a game, I do need 2D animations. Since I’m uncertain in this area, I will have to look around what is available. I have heard about these technologies:

I hope that Core animation is enough for my purposes. I’ll have to look at it and decide. I hope I can make my apps using nothing more than the Foundation, AppKit and QuartzCore. Also that I will be able to keep the development model I have learned using Foundation and AppKit.
Right now I’m aware of two books: Core Animation: Simplified Animation Techniques for Mac and iPhone Development by Marcus Zarra and Matt Long, and Core Animation for Mac OS X and the iPhone: Creating Compelling Dynamic User Interfaces by Bill Dudney. Both of them have mediocre reviews, and deal mainly with Mac and not iPhone.

A good way to start Core Animation for iPhone is to take a look at Brad Larson’s Core Animation talk at … mp-chicago

It’s time to turn pro. What does that mean? When I was in high school my English teacher always looked up English words she didn’t know, no matter what circumstances she was in. Even at a party, if she heard a new English word she didn’t know, she looked it up immediately in a dictionary. She was pro.

When working with computers or any other undertaking that you take seriously, if you care enough you will look up any new concept that comes your way. No matter how pressured and stressed you are. And even if you don’t come to understand the concept after a serous effort, you’ll make a note that this issue was not resolved, and you will look at every opportunity that comes your way to finally resolve it. Speed is not the final goal, understanding is. Why? It is well known in software engineering, that the later you catch a bug, the more penalty you have to pay. In fact penalty grows exponentially! It is the same with understanding :wink:.

When I was at University, there was a guy called Anders, who had the highest grades in all subjects. He was exceptional, and I thought it was because he was very gifted. One day I sat next to him, when doing the exercises. The teacher had written on the blackboard the exercises we were supposed to do. As I stumbled on a particularly hard problem, I looked to see how Anders was doing. To my surprise he wasn’t doing the exercise that the teacher had written on the blackboard, but another exercise. But, we are not supposed to do that exercise, I said to him. Ah, he answered, I don’t care what the teacher writes, I always do all the exercises. That was a pro! Did he put in more time then the rest of us? Yes, but only initially. In due time his strategy paid off, and he could have higher grades, by putting in the same amount of time and effort.

What do you do after you’ve solved a particular problem? You go on to next? No, if you’re a pro, you analyze your solution and make an analogue of an “exploded drawing”. The concept of exploded drawing was invented in the Renaissance, and here’s the first clear example, done by Leonardo da Vinci.
Here is a modern variant
Just like an exploded drawing shows the assembly parts and how they fit together, so must you analyze the parts of your solution and how they fit together. Especially important is to pay attention to the main difficulty of the problem and the gotchas. You must move the parts around until they make sense, so that you can picture the whole solution at a glance.

PS. You might have observed that I often use a dialog, or that I’m telling “you” what to do. The dialog is me talking to myself, and the “you” is instructions to myself. We are all different, and what might be a good instruction for me, might not automatically be good instruction for you. I suspect that many authors speak to themselves even if they use the “you” expression.

The second question is

This is different for different people. It is the thing that you value most. It could be money, respect, love, health, and so on. When you are working with your hedgehog concept, this is the thing that you want the process to generate. Although many things are good and valuable, usually one or two are more valuable than the rest. This is the thing that you want to maximize. In my case it is insight and flow. When I solve a difficult problem I’m often in flow and when I have solved it I get insight and understanding. By analyzing the solution, making “explode drawing” of it, I get still deeper understanding, which I can use to tackle even more difficult problems.