This article was guest written by G. Blair Dowden
One of my favorite modern “philosophers” is Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra. Known for his quick wit and strong arm, he delighted generations of baseball fans with his quips and quotes. While his comments always brought a smile and a laugh, they also contained pearls of wisdom for academic strategists.
Here are my favorite Yogiisms on change, strategy, and planning:
“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Higher education is in the midst of a significant and profound period of change. Many of the familiar pillars on which higher education has rested for decades—peer accreditation, modest government control, generous financial aid, positive public perception, traditional funding models, and classroom-based learning—have been questioned and debated in the academic and popular press. Academic strategists must recognize these substantial changes and plan for a future significantly different than what we have come to know.
“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.” Planning is essential to institutional growth and sustainability. Without planning, colleges are apt to drift from one unplanned venture to another, not knowing what the end will look like or when it has been accomplished. Troubled institutions often lack focused strategies and the courage to implement them.
“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.” Many higher education institutions have developed impressive plans—complete with glossy brochures and glowing press releases. These plans often break down in the implementation stage. To apply theory to practice, plans must be living and breathing documents—followed, tracked, and revised as needed. A perfectly developed plan might look impressive on a shelf but an effective strategic plan is one that is useful in practice.
“It ain’t over till it’s over.” Effective college leaders recognize that strategy development is never over. Unfortunately, institutions often make the mistake of thinking that once the planning process is concluded and a multi-year plan developed, planning can take a sabbatical for several years until the cycle begins again. Strategic thinking institutions recognize the truth of Yogi’s words—strategy development is never over if it is to be responsive to ever-changing internal and external factors.
“90% of the game is half mental.” Yogi may have been math-challenged but recognized that the success of most endeavors, whether baseball or strategic planning, requires study and thoughtful reflection and dialogue. In strategic planning, it is vitally important that all participants in the process have a common understanding and knowledge of major higher education and cultural trends and issues. This is often gained through required reading, extended dialogue, and presentations by visiting experts. Such a cognitive process ensures that all planners have a common lexicon and knowledge base, and minimizes conflicts about facts, assumptions, and trends that hinder effective planning.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” Good directions? No! Helpful advice for academic strategists? Yes! Often strategy development requires choosing between two equally valid options. Unfortunately, many colleges, when presented with this challenge, decide to form one more committee and prepare one more analysis, often leading to counterproductive “paralysis by analysis.” Effective institutions, after reasonable analysis, make decisions. They come to the fork in the road and they choose to act and to move forward.
Yogi once observed that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” It is also difficult to predict future outcomes of any strategic plan. What isn’t difficult to predict, however, is what happens when planning is ineffective or non-existent. Yogi’s comical quips are a good to place to start in developing an effective approach to strategic planning.
- Blair Dowden is President Emeritus of Huntington University (IN), where he served as President from 1991–2013.