07/06/2012 05:41 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012

Combining Sinek, Ishikawa, and Collins to Discover Our University Identity

The past year has brought a number of challenges to higher education. Here at McNeese, we --like most of our peer institutions across the nation -- are weathering a series of unprecedented cuts to our operating budget. One response to those cuts is to ask "Why us?" If funds are limited, why not cut some other agency of government? Or better yet, find more money to keep further cuts from happening. But if we really pay attention to the international transformation that is occurring across cultural, socio-economic, and generational boundaries, we might do better to ask a different "why" question.

In Simon Sinek's popular video speech, "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," the audience learns about three concentric circles, like the target used in archery. Sinek labels the outermost ring "what," the middle ring "how," and the bull's eye "why." He then describes the manner in which unsuccessful organizations work from the outside in, attempting to market "what" they are selling merely by describing "how" it will better the customer's life. On the other hand, successful organizations, according to Sinek, move from the inside out: beginning the process by understanding why they came into existence in the first place. According to Sinek, these organizations are successful because their integrity captures the hearts and minds of an increasingly loyal customer base. I believe those of us who make a living "marketing" higher education in the public arena would do well to heed Mr. Sinek's advice.

One method, too rarely used in higher education, for getting at this "why" question is a process known as "Hoshin Kanri," based on concepts developed by Professor Kaoru Ishikawa more than 50 years ago. Our variation of this method, here at McNeese, relied on the use of information technology to organize the collective thinking power of all university constituents to discover our collective identity and vision.

Our first phase was "idea gathering." From August of 2011 to January of 2012, we hosted over 30 brainstorming sessions in a 100-mile radius from Lake Charles, where groups of students, faculty, alumni, donors, civic leaders, and friends gathered. Participants answered 12 open-ended questions, such as "What is your first thought when you hear the name 'McNeese'?" and "Is there anything about McNeese that is so fundamental that we should protect it against change?" Mail-out surveys (to distant alumni) and an interactive online survey were also available. After collecting over five thousand responses to our 12 questions we began our "idea analysis" phase. By using word-frequency software we were able to identify some general themes from the most frequently used words and phrases in the responses, and could even break these patterns down to identify areas of difference and agreement among the various constituent groups (students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc.)

After conducting the typical SWOT analysis (matching internal strengths and weaknesses of the organization with projected opportunities and threats), we constructed a Venn diagram based upon the suggestions of Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. This diagram consists of three circles -- one reflecting what our constituents love most about McNeese, one reflecting what McNeese does best, and one reflecting the major drivers of our economic engine. These circles intersect at a point Jim Collins refers to as an organization's "hedgehog concept," reflecting ancient wisdom (perhaps derived from the Greek poet Archilochus) that "the fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing."

What we discovered here at McNeese is that our constituents do not just want a generic brand of comprehensive higher education. They do not want online or face-to-face coursework delivered in vanilla fashion. They want "excellence" delivered with a "personal touch." To others, it may seem anticlimactic to wind up so many brainstorming sessions with an observation like that. But for those of us who work here -- and especially for someone like me, who must facilitate campus operations as university president -- it has been important, and even inspiring, to know that our constituents view McNeese as a special place requiring a particular type of faculty-student interaction. And of course, we learned a great deal about the hopes and dreams of our constituents, not to mention learning a great deal about the constituents themselves.

Our approach is not for everyone. The Hoshin process required time (over a year), patience, and the right use of sophisticated software. And following Simon Sinek or Jim Collins may not be every university's cup of tea. But we believe getting the correct answer to the correct "why" question will assist us greatly in charting a successful course through the current political and economic wilderness we call higher education.