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Fox Photo by John Ryan on Flickr.

by • 13 Oct, 2011 • Inspiration, Thoughts about museumsComments (4)4988

From Good to Great to Obsolete

Ten years ago Jim Collins published a book that would change the way many organisations would do business: Good to Great. You’ve heard about it, maybe you even read it. The book gives a recipe for sustainable success, businesswise, based on a number of companies that outperformed their competitors over a long period of time. Jim Collins told millions how to be Great, as opposed to simply Good.

Quickly, a prequel for startups (Built to Last) and a special edition for the social sectors were published. For many consultants, Jim Collins was God.

The ten years since

Unfortunately, the years since 2001 brought trouble: The web 2.0 revolution, financial crises and the never-diminishing effect of Moore’s Law. The world changed, and not all of Jim Collins’s great companies managed to stay on top of things.

This week I spent some time with Anders Sorman-Nilsson, an expert on the disruptive nature of change for business. In a recent video on his blog, he explains how the years since 2001 have made some of the great companies become obsolete, or even go bust.

It very much seems that although you were brilliant the entire 20th century, it can be a matter of months in the 21st to have your organisation disappear into oblivion. What made you great in yesteryear might make you obsolete today.

And I don’t think this is limited to the moneymakers of the world. Museums, theatres and even social causes can become obsolete just as easily if they’re not designed to deal with the menacing effects of Moore’s Law and the like.

Foxes and hedgehogs

Jim Collins tells the story of the fox and the hedgehog. Every day the cunning fox tries to eat the hedgehog when he goes to drink water at a nearby pond. Every day, the fox tries something different, but every day the hedgehog simply roles up and stings the fox. The moral of the story: be a hedgehog. Find the thing you’re great at, find a way to make it profitable, and your organisation will last forever.

In the 20th century, being a hedgehog worked brilliantly. However, if you’re going to pick a mascot for your organisation AD 2011, many recommend the fox.

In his book The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance, makes a compelling case for the fox. When the complexity of the world increases, so does its unpredictability. The fox, constantly changing, always experimenting, never resting, embraces this uncertainty. The fox is much more likely to adapt to a disruptive change. The fox, in short, might just be better off in the 21st century.

Great foxy culture

In culture customers don’t seem as fickle as in – for instance – the smartphone business. People went to see the Mona Lisa and listen to Chopin fifty years ago, and they will in fifty years. Of course, that’s our luck; we work with stuff valuable enough to have survived the ages, so while an iPhone 4S is outdated in a year, Shakespeare will stay on stage well into the future.

Unfortunately we operate in a world full of unpredictable change. Who will go to see Shakespeare or Chopin, when world-class performances of their work can be brought into our living room, on demand, in 3D, for free, without coughing and sneezing neighbours? (More on that, later.)

In order to not become obsolete, cultural institutions in the 21st century need to think beyond the great stuff that helped us on in the past. We have to change the way we do business. We have to experiment and innovate. We have to become foxes.

Photo by John Ryan on Flickr.

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  • James

    Thanks for the post, it made me go back and rethink about the hedgehog concept. I would disagree, though, that the hedgehog concept is now wrong, if anything, I would say it’s even more important. With the constant change and new opportunities it’s easier than ever to get distracted and go off track/off mission it’s important for organizations to have the stake in the ground to keep them focused. That’s not to say we should do the same things in the same way as we’ve always done them. In the book Jim Collins talks about the hedgehog concept being a simple explanation for the intersection point of three circles:

    1. What you can be the best in the world at? And equally important what you cannot be the best in the world at?
    2. What drives your economic engine? (Cash flow per / x)
    3. What your deeply passionate about?

    Once the hedgehog concept is defined the organization should definitely encourage “fox” behavior within it; exploring, testing new ideas, methods, concepts. Without that overarching concept though the “fox” behavior will leave things disjointed and often lower quality (too many unrelated things going on at once) as anything and everything can be tried and attempted.  Should those 3 circles be challenged and re-evaluated on a regular basis, say yearly, to ensure they are still current and appropriate? Yes, though that is much easier said than done, as changing them often means sacrificing previously successful methods and efforts for the unknown.

    That some of the “Good to Great” and “Built to Last” companies are now struggling or have ceased to exist is just an indicator of how hard it is to stay a great company. Nothing can stay great forever and failure, though often unpleasant, is part of the cycle in that it creates opportunities for new companies to come in and have their chance at greatness.

    Have some companies failed because their hedgehog concept was too narrow or even wrong? Absolutely, as organizations have failed for many other reasons as well. If an organization’s hedgehog is “putting on the best live Shakespeare performances” and it isn’t providing any benefit to the end user over watching Shakespeare at home on their 3D TV then should the organization continue to exist? They could morph into a digital production company recording the plays and putting them online, but are they really the best organization to do that? Once online they are competing at a world wide level are they better than everyone else out there (movie studios, production companies, large organizations with bigger budgets for the plays, new organization built around the online experience)? Most likely not, in which case wouldn’t it be better for the funds and resources that organization would be using to go to other institutions that are better situated? They can be the best Shakespeare company in their city/region, though, so the organization should focus on what gets the most people attending their shows. What is the key reasons people come or don’t come to the shows? Maybe putting the plays online creates interest and get more people attending, it’s worth exploring. If they can’t make the live plays more interesting then watching them on TV then maybe they go the way of the horse buggy maker.

  • Hi James,

    Thanks for your reply! The distinction you make between being a hedgehog at the larger level and a fox in the details might work better in the cultural sector (and social sectors?), where “what we can do best in the world” are things like “increase the passion for modern art” rather than “sell cheap air travel”.

    By the way, I’m a big advocate of your thought that “being the best in the world” can mean something very local (the best of your city). In my experience this is often overlooked by institutions, whereas the great opportunities are local, I guess.

  • This may be the best post I’ve read in the past 12 months. I run a large web-based arts organization in the South and am constantly preaching this to my staff. Every year the speed of change in our business is accelerating, and we must be nimble or we will fail. The old ways of doing business are vanishing before our eyes.

  • Lessons from the Fox.This post reinforces what we are seeing in Big Data – be agile, analytic and adaptive.