Want to become "Great"? Study Bonsai first.

(This post is by Omkar Yarguddi)

Team meetings at Choose To Thinq are always interesting affairs. We start with some questions to get the creative juices flowing. As ever-curious people, we also end up discussing seemingly random topics. 

One of these topics was about a recent Bonsai show in Pune that I had missed attending. (Bonsai is an ancient Japanese art of creating miniature full size trees.) That conversation led me to binge-watch a very informative and highly-recommended YouTube series called ‘The Bonsai Art of Japan’.

I haven’t found any other resource that goes into such depth on the philosophy, techniques, and process behind Bonsai. There are lessons from Bonsai masters and the material is presented such that, by the end of it, even a complete novice like me could appreciate the art, the patience, and the amount of time and effort that goes into creating bonsai.


Right about the time I was blistering through this series, I was also reading a beautifully written book called ‘Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't’ by Jim Collins. The book is a culmination of 5 years of research on the trajectories of eleven companies. In a span of 40 years, they went from being mediocre to becoming ‘Great’. These included well-known brands such as Kimberly-Clark, Abbott, Walgreens, and Gillette. All these eleven companies beat the general market by at least three times over the course of 15 years after their transition point.

The study also looked at eleven comparison companies that were in similar conditions, had similar revenues, had access to the same information and technologies, yet failed to overcome their mediocrity, or worse, ceased to exist a few years later after lurching about in a mad frenzy to prevent exactly that!

The study of these ‘Good to Great’ companies discovered various factors common to them all, and what the comparison companies lacked, of which one of the most important was something called the Hedgehog concept.

'Good to Great' and The Hedgehog concept

Consider the tale of the fox and the hedgehog. The fox is very clever and comes up with many cunning plans to try and catch the hedgehog. But much like Baldrick’s cunning plans, it usually fails. Now the hedgehog may not be as clever as the fox, but it does one thing extremely well: curling up into a ball bristling with sharp spines every time it is under attack. So no matter what the fox does, the hedgehog almost always escapes unscathed because it sticks to one simple concept that makes all the sense in its world.

Finding the Hedgehog principle. Source:  Learning Apprentice

Finding the Hedgehog principle. Source: Learning Apprentice

Apply this tale to the "Good to Great" companies and a pattern starts to emerge. All of these companies found that one concept and stuck with it steadfastly. On average, it took them 4 years to zero in on their Hedgehog concept. But once they did, there was no stopping their momentum.

  • Walgreens found their hedgehog in trying to become a chain of the best, most convenient drugstores with high profit per customer visit.
  • In the case of Philip Morris, it was ‘becoming the best in the world at building brand loyalty in cigarettes and other consumables’.
  • Faced with the threat of the deregulation of the banking sector, Wells Fargo found its hedgehog concept in being the best at running a bank like a business, with a focus on on the western United States.

All of these companies took these simple concepts and implemented them with fanatical consistency!

So what's the Bonsai connection?

When creating and nurturing a bonsai, there are some aesthetic guidelines to follow. Also, the artist has a vision about what the finished bonsai should look like. Over the years, as the seasons pass and as the tree grows, incremental changes are made to take it towards that final vision.

This includes things like changing the soil, watering the tree appropriately, training its branches with wire, creating aesthetically pleasing deadwood, and trimming away branches which do not contribute towards the final vision. Such branches are merely a drain on available energy. Cutting them off diverts it to the other growing branches. If this trimming is not done, such branches grow more than the others and prevent sunlight from reaching the deeper buds of the tree, eventually killing them in the process. This can throw off the very delicate shape and energy balance that the bonsai artist strives so hard to maintain.

So in essence, the bonsai artist’s goal is simple: to try and make the bonsai into what they had envisioned, in keeping with a particular aesthetic sense. One could very well say this is their hedgehog concept :-)

Just as the bonsai master trims away superfluous, energy-draining branches, "Good to Great" companies promptly and fanatically eliminated all that which did not fit in with their hedgehog concept. They ensured funds, energy, and resources reached what would make them great.

  • In the case of Kimberly-Clark, it meant selling off all of their paper mills because it did not contribute to its vision of becoming the greatest in the paper-based consumer products market.
  • When Walgreens decided it was going to build a chain of the most convenient pharmacy stores, it had to close down its profitable restaurant business despite having an emotional bond with it.
  • Abbott realized that it did not have the option of becoming the best in the world at its core business of pharmaceuticals. So instead, they focused their energies on what they could be the best at: creating products that contribute to cost-effective health care.

Combined with other factors, this fanatical adherence to the hedgehog concept is what enabled these eleven companies to frequently produce spectacular results in very unspectacular industries.

To someone who has not seen how they did it, it would seem that the "Good to Great" companies had somehow discovered some secret magic that made them what they are. Well, if only they knew that this is exactly what bonsai masters have been doing for years, decades, centuries even!

Contemplate Bonsai and find your Hedgehog concept

Want to find your own magic sauce recipe? Start by looking at some bonsai trees, and contemplating the thought and effort that has gone into making it what it is. Who knows, you might even feel a few spines starting to bristle on your back!

('Good to Great' is part of our 'Same Page' library - where we offer a calendar of engaging in-person summaries of important books)