Hedgehogs make great executives

Actually, it's more accurate to say good executives act like hedgehogs in a way. A hedgehog probably wouldn't make a good executive....except at maybe a hedge fund company.

But I wouldn't know. I've never had any interactions with hedge funds. Or with actual hedgehogs for that matter.

Anyway, this all stems from the fact that yesterday I was reminded just how much I freakin' love my five year strategic plan. No, really. I'm not just geeking out on strategery and vision questing (which I tend to do sometimes). I am seriously happy about the five year plan I have at work.

Mostly because I'm in year five of it. And the number of things that are crossed off of it - meaning the number of major projects that have gotten done - is pretty amazing.

Keep reading, I'll get to the hedgehog bit shortly...

The Five Year Plan

A while back (about five years ago, if we're being precise), I worked with my board to develop a strategic list of all the major projects and initiatives we wanted to complete in the next five years. I was brand new to my role as Executive Director so it was as much of a personal goal setting effort as it was a departmental effort. This plan, for right or wrong, was going to define the first few years of my career as the head of this organization. 

Now let me be the first to say that I really had no idea what I was doing. But really, who does when they take the reins of an organization? I didn't know if the number of projects in this plan could reasonably be completed in five years. I sure as hell had no idea where the money was going to come from to pay for it all. 

What I did know was that I wanted some focus. I wanted a document that laid out, in black and white, the things that we as an organization felt were important. I needed a target, a timeline, and freedom to find the best way to get it all done. And to the credit of my board, once we all agreed to the final draft, they gave me all the freedom I needed. 

As I mentioned, that document outlined the big projects and initiatives we were going to focus on over the next five years. And focus I did. And so did my staff.

Side note here: None of what has been accomplished at my department over the past five years would have been possible without the blood, sweat, and tears my staff put in to making it all happen. Sure, I get to be the one that talks about the results to my board and I'm the one that gets to write a blog post about it after my kid goes to bed, but the credit belongs to them. 

So Pat, John, Jeremy, Tanner, Kent, Frances, Jeff, Joel, Alex, and JB...if you ever read this, you all effing rock! Thank you!

Anyway, back to that focusing thing. Through a bit of a "vision quest" process (I'll write about that someday), my staff and I developed this plan to focus our efforts on only the things that were true to our mission and which lent themselves to the successful execution of this new five year plan. 

Part of that last sentence bears repeating. We focused our efforts on only the things that were true to our mission. That's it. Nothing else. Absolutely everything we did, every personal performance goal we set, every new project and every new menial task we took on was weighed against how it fit our mission, or our core purpose (that's another something I'll expand on in a future post maybe). We did this even at the expense of things we maybe wanted to do, or maybe could have done, or some may even say should have done. 

Yes, it was tough at times. For me, one of the toughest parts was learning to say no. At one point, I resigned from a couple community organizations I was involved in to free up my time to focus on a major construction project. We completely shuttered a one room schoolhouse that just didn't fit in with any of our programming or capital improvement plans (a local volunteer group has since adopted it). We passed on a number of other, smaller projects that we could have taken on but that weren't part of the strategic plan, opting instead to dedicate our resources and manpower to that which we deemed priority. 

The Hedgehog Concept

Basically, I applied the "hedgehog concept" to our operations (credit goes to Jim Collins and his book, Good to Great for that idea). The hedgehog concept is based on the Ancient Greek parable: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In other words, the cunning fox is always trying some new way of attacking the hedgehog. But no matter what he tries, the result is always the same: the hedgehog rolls up into a ball of pointy spines, thwarting the fox's attack. The fox goes away hungry, the hedgehog survives and moves on, never losing focus on his "one big thing."

Get it? Collins does a way better job of describing it...and its practical application to building a great organization. Just read the book.

The One Big Thing

For five years, we stayed focused on our "one big thing" - our five year plan. Which brings me to today, when I got to review that plan with my board for the fifth time (we formally review it every year). And you know what? That one big thing had resulted in getting a lot of big things done.

For the most part, we have either completed, or will be completing this year, the vast majority of the projects we identified as priorities five years ago. There are a few odds and ends that aren't crossed off (I put lines through everything that had been completed), but most of those are sub-components of bigger projects that we either scaled back or put off pending a new planning process. 

Some of those big things include purchasing 235 acres of public land (a project that had been stalled out for nearly seven years by the time we finally got it done), then another 105 acres that we'll be closing on very soon; building up and adding infrastructure to a campground that has now become one of the most popular camping destinations in the area; a complete overhaul of both our nature center and environmental education curriculum, and a host of other projects. All told, we spent probably around $3 million on these projects, with practically none of it coming from the tax base. 

By our standards, that's a massive sum of cash.

Getting Things Done Feels Good

For those of you outside this industry, this all may sound pretty boring. Hell, maybe it bores a lot of you within this industry. If so, why are you still reading? 

But if you're like me, you know what I'm talking about here. There's a real sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing a strategic plan with a bunch of stuff crossed off it. All too often plans like those rot on a shelf and are never really used as a guide for where your department is headed. You put in all that time and effort to make the plan, then never follow through with it or really use it like it's intended. If that's the result, why waste the effort in the first place?

For me, there's also a big sense of pride in knowing we have developed the discipline to maintain an unwavering focus on our core mission and priority projects. Because that, to me (and to Jim Collins and his research team), is what sets the "great" organizations apart from the "good" ones. 

For us, that "greatness" came as a result of an unwavering focus on our mission, and the plan we developed to deliver on that mission. I really don't think we'd have been as effective or would have accomplished as much as we did without that focus. So I guess the point I'm trying to make out of all of this rambling about our five year plan is this:

Be a hedgehog.

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photo credit: sylven73 A surprisingly fast hedghog via photopin (license)