Defining a ‘hedgehog’ goal keeps you focused.

A problem that we all experience is that there are many types of things that need attention - tasks in the real world, with real people; emails that need to be answered and that create tasks, meetings that consume time in which other tasks might be accomplished.

There are many techniques and applications that can help with this. David Allen’s “Getting things Done” or GTD is popular. It is based on the idea that we don’t want to lose any tasks, so write everything down, but also that tasks have a time and location context. The identification of these contexts, such as @home, or @London help you filter tasks so that you can focus on an appropriate subset of them without being overwhelmed by the whole lot. I went on a training course run by David Allen in London and it was a very worthwhile experience. However, my and others I have spoken to, use of GTD often ignores the bigger picture goal work as we fitfully categorise our short term tasks.

I also work with a great deal of product development teams and find a similar symptom of task clutter. Any lean or agile coach will tell you that you should minimise work in progress (WIP) and that taking a firm hand to your backlog is an important step in prioritising work to be done in the next sprint. Yet, I often find developers and even product owners very vague about the customer experience as a whole that they are trying to create as it is distinct from the tasks and user stories they have elaborated.

I am not suggesting deep forward planning or “big design upfront”. However, in setting priorities for work in sprints, we need to keep the final contingent / hypothetical outcome in mind in order to make effective choices. These choices will be in the light of hypotheses that we test each sprint, but the choice of which hypotheses to test is certainly partly a function of where you’re trying to get. There are some useful approaches to managing these trade-offs: Mike Patton’s Story Mapping, Gojko Adjic’s Impact Mapping and my IOTA model. But to return to where we started, how do we apply some of this thinking in our daily prioritization of tasks?

If you were to look at all of the tasks, meetings and emails you have, how do they relate to each other and in particular advance your short term goals? As Covey pointed out a long time ago, the confusion of important with urgent is insidious. So often, we respond to emails that are not urgent, nor important and crowd out our attention on those things that really move us forward.

Here’s my approach, which I call “The Hedgehog Principle”:

  • Protect Hedgehogs from Foxes
  • Keep Foxes out of the Hen-House.

The basis for this is a famous quote from Archilochus, discussed at length by the philosopher Isiah Berlin,

“The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

In “Good to Great,” Dan Collins identified successful companies and those that led them. He also used this idea of the hedgehog and the fox and proposed that successful companies focused on ‘one big thing’ and great corporate leaders were more like hedgehogs than foxes. I have reservations about the analysis but the use of the metaphor is apposite here.

For personal use:

Each 3 month period should have a ‘big idea’ associated with it —> what will you have achieved in this period that will have a significant impact in your environment - work, community or home?  I call this ‘the hedgehog’. I like a 3 month period, but you can adjust as necessary. 3 months is enough time to consider something big but not so much time as to make all planning irrelevant. Every week, identify those tasks and meetings that must be completed or started in that week. I call these ’the foxes’. All the other ‘filler’ tasks and meetings we have, as well as task ideas that might constitute your hedgehog goal, I put ‘In the Henhouse’. Think of this as a backlog.Choose those tasks from the Henhouse that get you closer to your hedgehog goal. Note that items in the henhouse, can and will morph into foxes as they mature. That is the point. We want to work on things when they are necessary not just because they are there. Each 3 month period should have a ‘big idea’ associated with it —> what will you have achieved in this period that will have a significant impact in your environment - work, community or home? I call this ‘the hedgehog’. I like a 3 month period, but you can adjust as necessary. 3 months is enough time to consider something big but not so much time as to make all planning irrelevant.

Every week, identify those tasks and meetings that must be completed or started in that week. I call these ’the foxes’.

All the other ‘filler’ tasks and meetings we have, as well as task ideas that might constitute your hedgehog goal, I put ‘In the Henhouse’. Think of this as a backlog.

Choose those tasks from the Henhouse that get you closer to your hedgehog goal. Note that items in the henhouse, can and will morph into foxes as they mature. That is the point. We want to work on things when they are necessary not just because they are there.

In a startup or a large enterprise, there are so many demands for our attention. Sometimes our inability to address or ‘fix’ all we think we need to around us, can be very frustrating. In my personal experience, keeping the hedgehog in mind, to enable you to focus on what really matters can help keep you sane.

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