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Sweet Strategy: Asking the Right Questions

What do chocolate chip cookies have to do with higher ed strategy? 

August 19, 2012

What do chocolate chip cookies have to do with higher ed strategy?

In the 1930’s, a salesman at Nestlé asked why the sales of chocolate bars had suddenly increased in the town of Whitman, Massachusetts.  The answer to this question resulted in a lucrative 40-year contract, Nestlé’s venture into chocolate chips, and would associate Nestlé forever more with the newly invented chocolate chip cookie.

According to the book How the Hot Dog Found its Bun, the reason chocolate bar sales increased was because Ruth Wakefield decided to use an ice pick to chop up chocolate and add it to her cookie batter.  She served the resulting treat to guests at her inn, The Toll House. They were widely popular, so she bought more chocolate bars, leading to the Nestlé salesman’s inquiry -- and the rest is sweet history. 

Noticing movements in data and asking the right questions can lead to powerful revelations.  It starts with purposefully observing, then taking the time to investigate.

In higher education, an admissions team might ask - why has there been a sudden increase in applications from students in _______, or a decrease from students in ______? What do those changes mean for the applicant pool, and are they positive?   A marketing department might ask - why did website traffic double last week? Did the spike result from advertising efforts, social media or something unexpected? A finance director might ask - why do our competitors charge a fee for _________? This might lead to a realization that the school’s services are not up to par with market offerings.

It can be difficult to find the right question to ask, and as Peter Drucker said, “The most common source of mistakes in management decisions is the emphasis on finding the right answer rather than the right question.”


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