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Use foresight to avoid losing your way

Compass: don't lose your way!
It’s too easy to swap your organization’s true mission for single-mindedness about preserving and defending the institution as an institution. The clear and broad view you get with foresight can help you avoid that.
Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, published an essay, “The ‘Veritas’ About Harvard” in the October 2, 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, he offers a fierce critique of Harvard. He accuses the University of having invested part of its enormous endowment (which is tens of billions of dollars) merely in the apparatus of the institution-staff and buildings, rather than in extending Harvard’s quality education to more students. What Harvard did with its money, in his view, is build a lot of new, glossy buildings and grow its staff, which would seemingly make it able to raise the number of undergraduates. But it did not.
Carey makes the point that: “money is the great leveler: It makes even the smartest people in the world act stupidly.” What was stupid about Harvard’s investments? They invested to preserve the institution, rather than further its mission. Harvard invested to extend its prestige and exclusivity, and the privileges of its elite faculty and leadership, rather than to extend education to more students. Carey notes: “An institution truly dedicated to teaching students has natural limits on how much money it needs. At some point, the land and space and professors suffice.”
This harsh critique leveled at Harvard suggests a wider lesson that can be critical to almost any institution as it builds toward its future. Institutions too easily take a single-minded continue-at-all-costs view that can blind their leaders to their true or original purposes. The narrowness may not be intentional, but it’s powerful and can destroy what matters most. I don’t suggest that institutions give up all aspirations of growth and financial security, just that they reflect with some care on what they are doing, and step back and take a long-term view.
It’s reasonable to argue, and some of the online commenters on the Carey piece do, that Harvard is a private institution that can do whatever it wants. That’s true, but I’ll bet overall it is not the intention of Harvard to merely build enormous wealth and extend its holdings in Cambridge. I’ll bet the University still wants to be a premier educational institution and to make a difference in the world. It’s the demanding financial beast that Harvard became that threatens to pull it away from its true mission:
“Harvard College adheres to the purposes for which the Charter of 1650 was granted: ‘The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the … youth of this country….’ In brief: Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities.”
How does foresight help? If you take a deeper look into the future, it is often easier to see past the immediate needs of the institution, namely money: this quarter’s revenues or next year’s budget. You can focus more clearly on the growth and development of the organization in its service to its mission, not just its financial survival. Certainly this is true for non-profits that clearly don’t exist just to build up capital and income streams. Of course some for-profit companies really do exist to build themselves up financially. But even for many a for-profit company—it’s not size for size’ sake, nor revenue for revenue’s sake that is the reason to exist. Greater profits might come from scaling down.
Surely most institutions don’t want to lose sight of their missions, and fall into a pattern of preserving the beast at all costs. And I don’t think Harvard does either.
A special thanks to Ellen Miller a friend a colleague of my wife at Stonebridge Associates for pointing me to the Carey essay. I always learn something new from Ellen.
Image: apesara, via Flickr, cc license
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