Don’t be tempted by shortcuts (Some commentary of higher ed administration, among other things)

One of our local university president’s recently wrote the following in a community update email:

It’s been said that: “Behind every brilliant performance were countless hours of practice and preparation.” I believe this is true of people and of institutions.

I agree with this statement too.

However, it is my belief that modern marketing can be largely classified as an elaborate attempt at a shortcut – a clever detour around the “countless hours of practice and preparation”.

Sell a product through a dazzling advertisement, rather than through a good reputation, satisfied customers spanning years, and word of mouth. Get students to come to college by offering them pictures and videos of their future selves lounging in cushy new dorms, barely studying with coeds, and occasionally dressed in lab coats holding a pipette and looking very serious. “I can live easy, have fun, and pop out the other side looking like a legit adult!”. This is in contrast to people coming to your school because their parents went there, because it’s the place just down the street or down the highway an hour – the logical local choice. Your parents and many of the other people you look up to went there. They’ve largely succeeded. You could do the same, with people who are now 50 as your model instead of some imaginary successful 22-year-old hipster.

We get fooled by this stuff because we’ve seen it seem to work a few times. Kids like Justin Bieber are made into bazillion-dollar stars with seemingly minimal effort. Shortcut. The business world has been gaga for years now over popular tech startups by recent grads in hoodies, throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at projects like Tumblr, Pandora, Foursquare, you name it, despite the fact that they have yet to make a single dime in profit. Shortcut. Shortcut. Guitar sales are through the roof this past decade, but the number of people who can actually play them worth squat is barely up. Buying a nice axe functioned as a shortcut for them – a shortcut to nowhere.

My exhortation is that we (as an educational institution, but this goes for anyone else too) should play to our strengths – amplifying the things we do well. Don’t pretend we do stuff we can’t deliver on. Break down obstacles for people participating. Be humble and then be awesome.

For someone selling a piece of software: Make it really easy for people to use and make it work so when anyone asks you if they should buy it to, it’s no-brainer. Don’t show people how fan-flippin’-tastic it is and then when they actually hand over all their clams, they find out basic stuff doesn’t even work at all. (Exchange Server and iPhone Mail, I’m talkin’ to you!)

For someone administrating a university: Beef up the strong programs. Get even more people to come to them by funding more grad student stipends. Go to great lengths to keep the best teachers. Find out ways to make college cheaper so your students are not shackled in so many chains of debt. Subsidize cheap apartments perhaps instead of making expensive housing (new dorm and meal plans) mandatory for incoming students. Don’t spend millions of dollars to keep an athletics program floundering in the highest-tier league. Don’t cut it – just adjust it. Play closer to home. Say no to ESPN and the bright lights. They have their reward already.

Every day you are going to be faced with the option to take a shortcut in something. And you are going to have someone swearing that you should take it because it seemed to work for so-and-so. You have to have the backbone to say no to the shortcuts. It will suck in the short term but being patient virtually always pay off in the long. Take the shortcut and you may be hot tomorrow, but with no foundation things are unlikely to look the same as you progress into the future. (Exhibit A: Lance Armstrong).

Now I’m trying to figure out what shortcuts I’m always taking without much thought – likely many more than I care to admit.