Creating Unity in the Music Unit through Collaborative Strategic Planning: Developing a "Hedgehog Concept"

February 28, 2009

John Graulty is chair of the music department at Delaware State University. He brings leadership experience in both academe and the military to his work for the CMS Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration, and, through this essay as well as through his presentations at national conferences for CMS and NASM, to the academic music community. Considering current and projected economic conditions, his topic for this essay, which focuses on creating unity through strategic planning, could not be timelier. All of us will be challenged with a new fiscal landscape, and likely for a number of economic quarters. How will all of our academic programs work together through these challenges? Drawing on the leadership theories of author Jim Collins (Good to Great), John offers a blueprint for positive change, one that would be applicable under any circumstance, but especially now at a time when the future holds much uncertainty.

   - Keith Ward, Chair, Committee on Academic Leadership and Administration

Collaborative strategic planning using effective brainstorming techniques is one of the best ways to build unity and cohesion in the music unit. It builds unit camaraderie by insuring all voices are heard, places collective goals above personal agendas, and guides a unit intentionally into the future. One effective way of building this camaraderie is through the "hedgehog concept," developed by Jim Collins in his best seller, Good to Great (and its accompanying monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors). Collins's concept is inspired by the animal of the same name which, when sensing danger, balls up and exposes its spiky exterior, effectively retreating to its safe and impregnable core until the danger passes. Specific to strategic planning, this concept serves analogously as a form of organizational conscience around which all unit members can rally, making both followership and leadership easier.

An organization's hedgehog concept emerges out of the confluence of the following three realizations:

1) What is your unit passionate about?
2) What can your unit be best in the world at?
3) What drives your resource engine (e.g., people, resources, and brand)?

Having used the development of a hedgehog concept as a foundation for effective brainstorming and strategic planning at Delaware State University, I discovered the following benefits:

  1. Musicians, by their very nature, love discussing what they are passionate about.
  2. A discussion about what a unit can truly be best in the world at encourages deep soul searching and leads to a very realistic discussion about what the unit might truly be best in the world at.
  3. Discussing how passion and reality relate to resource generation encourages faculty to think practically, especially in a period of economic hardship and diminishing resources.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, the hedgehog discussion helps the unit create its own cohesive identity and mission.

Gathering Data for a Strategic Planning Retreat
When preparing for a strategic planning retreat with the objective of developing an organizational "hedgehog concept," a music unit must take stock of where it has been and where it is now in order to have a sense of where to head in the future. Gathering data about your institution, your music unit, your competitors, and local and national trends will help you define not only the parameters of your world, but also your music unit's current place in that world. Remember: if you are going to try to define what you might be best in the world at, you need to have a thorough grasp of your "world" and your unit's place in it. The best sources for institutional data include:

  1. the Institutional Research (IR) office (the "bean counters")
  2. the Registrar's/Records Office
  3. the Alumni Office
  4. Institutional/Unit-Level Self-Studies or Consultant/Visitors Reports
  5. Department/Unit Records

Good sources for external data, competitor benchmarking, and regional and national trends include:

  1. Rand Corporation Reports (The Performing Arts in a New Era & others)
  2. National Endowment for the Arts
  3. HEADS (Higher Education Arts Data Survey) from NASM.
  4. MENC and other national organizations
  5. State and U.S. Departments of Education
  6. N.C.E.S. - National Center for Education Statistics
  7. Local Chamber of Commerce Studies/Reports

Selecting a Time and Location for Your Retreat
Scheduling your retreat at a time when the majority of your stakeholders are available and clearheaded is critical. Just before or after an academic term (following the submission of grades) is often a good time. I have found that it is best to plan a two-day retreat with a few days in between sessions to allow for reflection and absorption of ideas. Be sure to get away for your retreat, even if you can't leave campus. Find a spot away from your normal work area and away from e-mail, cell phones, and other daily interruptions. Approach strategic planning as if it were collective meditation. When determining who to include in the retreat, be as inclusive as possible. Remember: strategic planning is a community building effort that involves, unifies, and empowers all stakeholders.

Structuring the Retreat Itself
Strategic planning begins with strategic thinking and strategic analysis of data. Your retreat should begin with a presentation of data that places your unit in a context within your institution, community, and the world beyond. From a data-rich and informed foundation, you are ready to employ any number of collaborative brainstorming techniques to move towards formulating a plan for the future (ideally, the next five years). There are a variety of proven brainstorming techniques to choose from, and it is certainly possibleeven advisableto incorporate or blend several of these. "Imagineering" and dreaming exercises may be productive, as well as SWOT analysis, where strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are assessed. Engaging participants in the development of a hedgehog concept is the technique I have found most effective in terms of stimulating deep thought and passionate discussion.

Brainstorming Towards Your "Hedgehog Concept" With a solid understanding of internal and external data and the realities established by that data, begin brainstorming about the three elements that converge to form your hedgehog concept (what is your unit passionate about, what can your unit be best in the world at, what drives your resource engine).

Avoiding the instinct to analyze ideas as they arise, simply encourage participants to "throw out" things they are individually or collectively passionate about and write them down. (I have become a big fan of colored markers and large, poster-sized Post-It brand sheets of paper. These large sheets can be moved around the room and taken with you at the end of the retreat, serving as your strategic "blueprints" and eliminating the need for any note takers.) Your data review (student surveys, for example) might also suggest things that your students are passionate about. Write down all ideas rather quickly, avoiding any urge to analyze or judge them.

Next, start a new list (if you are using posters, with a different colored marker), brainstorming about what your stakeholder participants think your unit might realistically be best in the world at. The importance of having preceded this step by carefully examining data, especially from competitors and benchmark institutions, now becomes clear. If you are passionate about, say, implementing a new music therapy program, but a nearby competitor has had a thriving program in this area for the past ten years, the likelihood of your unit being the best in the world at music therapy is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, pursuing such a course of action will likely fail to stoke your resource engine sufficiently.

Finally, start a third list (with yet a different colored marker), brainstorming about what drives your resource engine. In the corporate model, Jim Collins explains that this element is simply defined as profit. But in higher education, and music units in particular, people (faculty resources and student enrollment) and brand identity emerge as the critical elements that fuel an organization's resource engine.

The Final Step: Identifying Your Unit's "Hedgehog Concept"
Once you have developed your three lists indicating what you are collectively passionate about, what you might be best in the world at, and what drives your resource engine, review your lists, prioritizing and assessing the relative merit of individual ideas against reality and established data. Then, find the intersection or overlap between the three "hedgehog" elements. This will be your new hedgehog concept. Be careful to consider the true interconnectedness of all three elements. For example, a company might conclude that it is passionate about building antique-style bicycles (the ones with the huge front wheels). Moreover, the company might truly be the best, even only, company in the world that builds such bicycles, but if no one is interested in buying these bicycles produced with such passion and high quality, the company has nothing to drive its resource engine. It will surely fail. Obviously, finding the critical overlap of the three elements that make up an organization's hedgehog concept is paramount.

Using good internal and external data, and having fully mined the wealth of ideas brought to the table by all stakeholders through collaborative brainstorming and well-structured strategic planning, it is possible for a music unit to emerge from a strategic planning retreat with a cohesive and unifying hedgehog concept that all are passionate about, that has the potential to lead to market domination (or near domination), and that promises to attract the resources necessary to sustain and expand the unit's mission and brand identity well into the future. Having a vital organizational conscience in place, a unit is able to move forward with a common purpose and a renewed sense that they are providing both a high quality and unique service. Unit cohesion and high morale make it a joy for stakeholders to engage in implementing the new hedgehog concept.


Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't. Harper Collins, 2001.

Collins, Jim. Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer (A Monograph to Accompany "Good to Great"). Jim Collins, 2005.

2417 Last modified on May 6, 2013
Login to post comments