Put the System in Place

One of the presentations I’ve given to schools and groups of school administrators over the past few years was titled “Row, Row, Row Your Boat: [Your School’s] Life is But a DREAM.”  For those of you that have been visitors to this site, you know that DREAM is the acronym I use for the systems thinking required with advancement.  Each of the five elements (Development, Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management and Marketing) all work together.

For those of you wondering about the “boat” reference, think of the slave ship in the movie, “Ben Hur.”  Or, for you younger folks, imagine a college rowing team – oars on the left side of the craft, oars on the right side.  In order for the craft to go straight, those doing the rowing must be synchronized with one another.

Now imagine that the coxswain is the principal, giving directions to the team.  The oars on the right side of the boat are those five DREAM elements, while the oars on the left side of the boat are those things that are usually associated with your schools.  There are also five elements, the first letters of which spell out the word, FACTS – Faith identity or Founder’s heritage, Activities, Curriculum, Technology and Surroundings.  Interestingly, these can also be thought of as “left-brain” functions, while DREAM elements are “right-brain” functions.  Each of the five elements balance the other side of the boat.

Of course, every good school is working on some attribute of the left side – Faith identity or Founder’s heritage permeates all aspects of what happens in the school; activities provide a source of community pride for some schools while developing teamwork, physical fitness, and the importance of celebration (or the lessons of learning to be gracious losers); curriculum is always striving for academic excellence in the classroom, a combination of teachers and the content being conveyed; technology is a must in today’s schools – especially if students are going to be able to function in the marketplace they’ll enter when they graduate; and the surroundings of the school which not only make for a learning environment that is conducive to excellence, but one that is inviting and welcoming to parents of prospective students, parents of current students, donors and members of your local community.

Now, consider the other side of the boat.  Does your school have an effective development program?  Do you have an enrollment planning, follow-up and tracking system?  Is your marketing goal clearly defined (and if you say that the goal of your marketing is to increase enrollment, you may have just put your finger on one of the problems your school is experiencing)?  Are you in charge of your asset management strategies – or does that person report to someone else, and you just have to, as one school administrator told me, “learn to deal with it?”  And, do you have effective retention strategies in place to keep the parents currently in your school community positively engaged and energized about the vibrant educational environment your school offers?

If your answers aren’t as positive as you’d like them to be, or as strong as your left side of the boat, that means that you don’t have all your oars in the water.  If you try to row, all you’re going to do is go around in circles.

Does that sound like what you’re doing now?

If so, you need to realize that it takes time to be able to change course.  A boat can’t screech to a halt like a car can.  There are other factors – the wind, the waves, the current – that will affect how much time you need to right your navigation toward your vision.  The first thing you need to do, however, is put the SYSTEM in place…not just development, not just enrollment, not just marketing…ALL the elements must be present for the system to be balanced.  Remember that Development and Enrollment are “long-term” elements, and efforts will start to come to fruition in 3 to 5 years.  Marketing is a “medium-term” element which drives both Development and Enrollment, and takes 1 to 3 years to have a significant effect.  Asset Management and Retention are the two remaining elements which can have an effect in the “short-term,” in a year or less.

When all elements are in place, then the system can be tweaked a little at a time, allowing for a little more effort on one element to assist in steering the school toward your vision for it.  Changing the system requires systemic change…not linear change.

What would be a linear approach?  It would amount to putting development practices in place.  Then, when development strategies begin to take root, then work on growing enrollment, and continuing the pattern to work on one element at a time.  The question to answer when considering a linear approach is, “Does my school have an infinite amount of time to implement these strategies?”  Unfortunately, for many schools, the answer is “No,” and therefore, a significant number of those schools choose to keep doing things “The way we’ve always done it.”

It’s interesting – when you start to consider questions like, “How can we increase enrollment at our school?” the conversation will touch on the other DREAM elements, as well as some of those “wind, waves and current” factors mentioned previously, which are experienced as personnel, governance and the constituent mindsets which affect your school. In the words of Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner),

Nothing happens in a vacuum in life: every action has a series of consequences, and sometimes it takes a long time to fully understand the consequences of our actions.

Systems thinking is a new way of thinking for many people, since adjusting each element will have an effect on the other elements, which, in turn, will affect the emergent property of the system.  Because linear or process thinking is what’s responsible for landing schools in the predicaments they’re facing today, it must be realized that the same type of thinking won’t solve the problems schools are experiencing.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2010-2015 (Original Publication Date: 20101108)