Your School: A System of Systems

Let’s apply some systems thinking to your school, and begin in the classroom, where we learn the importance of “3” very early on.  Most of the time, it’s in English class, when teachers say, “Be sure to use at least three resources in your research.”  Sometimes it’s in math class, where we learn about triangles.

Most individuals try to condense rationales, reasons or supportive documentation to three citations. Steven Jobs even said that most individuals can only hold three ideas in mind at the same. Some can hold four concepts in mind simultaneously, but the vast majority of us can only recall three list items without employing some type of mnemonic device.  The adage, “There are three sides to every argument” also has validity, and, of course, the most stable geometrical figure is that triangle just mentioned.

It’s also been said that the three things schools must do to survive today are:

– Fill every desk (Enrollment)
– Seek outside sources for funds (Development)
– Utilize a 21st century method to capture revenue (Asset Management)

Unfortunately, while this may seem like framework to create a stable structure, there are not just one, but two additional elements that are necessary to complete a three-dimensional picture. The fourth element is related to one of them, but upon further investigation, it can be realized that it has a significant impact on the other two. Adding the fourth element automatically creates the fifth element…we just have to look for what it is, as it impacts the other four. It ties them together and creates the system.

As it pertains to the financial support of the educational environment, the three elements mentioned above are augmented by the action of retaining enrolled students, simply because retention strategies are different from enrollment strategies. In creating the fourth point, a triangle then forms the base of a tetrahedron. Retention is connected to enrollment, but it’s also connected to development, since students that complete their education at the school become targetable alumni at some point in time for development efforts, and retaining students provides a base for enrollment to grow and stave off tuition and fee revenue increases.tetrahedron smaller

The fifth side of the four-sided pyramid – the tetrahedron – is the “in”side – the one that no one sees because the other four sides hide it, but which what holds the other four sides in place.  In this iteration of the model, that side can be considered to be marketing. Communication with members of all four constituency groups (namely, parents of students currently enrolled, parents of future students of your school, donors, and other entities, such as your parish, church, or community businesses which provide your school with various types of support) is essential for cohesion. That’s why when schools “cut” marketing as an expendable expense, it’s affecting the core of what is required for the school to grow.

Because the model is a living system, the elements can also “shift,” which may more aligned to what your school has experienced.  Looking at the model of the tetrahedron from the top down, the three visible sides could represent the iterative system created by enrollment, retention and marketing, since enrolling children in your school leads to retaining those students as part of the student body, and the parents of those children then provide positive word of mouth marketing that leads to more parents making inquires to the school in order to enroll their children.  The foundational base of the tetrahedron is development, and that “side that no one sees” is asset management.  Why is this model common?  As a leader of a school, you may be responsible for increasing enrollment, as well as retaining those students in the school, marketing the school throughout the community and interacting with alumni and other potential donors which support the vision you have for the school.  Yet, the billing and tuition collection functions may be handled by someone who has no day-to-day contact with the school, like a parish business manager or a part-time contracted bookkeeper which may be approved by the school’s governing board.  That dysfunction creates a downward vortex which is the root cause of many schools to shrink until they get to the point of closure.

Other examples:

– Earth, wind and fire – leads to water and gravity

– Father, Son and Spirit – leads to Mary and Us!

– Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic – leads to Representational and Mentoral

Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” asserts that starting with “who” and “what” – components of the mission statement, the product, the company, etc. – misses the target. Organizations need to start with “Why” to realize the purpose and passion of the organization. With due respect to Mr. Sinek, he is partially correct.  It is indeed more important to start with “why” than with “what,” but you must start with “where” to provide a clear vision of “where” your organization needs to go.  As Proverbs 29:18 states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  “Who” comes next, as posited by Jim Collins’ “Good to Great”‘s counsel to “Get the right people on the bus and get them in the right seats” by saying, “First Who, Then What.”  Those actions are then followed by “why” (your school’s case statement, explaining why it’s worthy of support), “how” (which differentiates your school from others in the marketplace), and “what” your school does.

To review, “Who,” comes after “where,” and “what” indeed comes after “who,” but “why” and “how” are between them, creating this systemic process:  Where –> Who –> Why –> How –> What.  Note that “what” your school does is measured against the vision, so What leads to Where, which completes the system.

A deeper examination of “who” describes the “right” people to be part of the team – not necessarily the “experienced” ones. Take a look at the Apostles. Matthew was an experienced tax collector. He knew finances, but Judas was the group’s financial director.

Ideally, a system needs to be put in place as a whole, but since we are trained to be linear thinkers, doing “everything at once” can be overwhelming. A realization needs to be made that while everything must be incorporated simultaneously, everything doesn’t have to be “perfect” in order for the system to function.  However, the more “perfect” it is, the more “perfect” the system will be. It is precisely this rationale that has led to the realization of the necessity of prioritization. Unfortunately, rather than prioritizing after the system is in place, the highly developed linear thinker will want to work on one element first and get it as close to perfection as possible, and only then move on to the next element.  Such a process almost always leads to either failure, because nothing will be perfect, or frustration, because the timeline of the project will be protracted.  If you’ve ever had an addition put on your house, I’m sure you’re familiar with the countless delays that are inherent within the project.

The implementation of a system is not a static event, meaning that it will constantly change as it is improved upon.  It will evolve. This change is also evident in every living organism, and by definition, a living system is created.  It is precisely for this reason that the two different “hidden” sides described above can be possible.  The system is not static, and therefore, the “hidden” side can shift.  Once it becomes evident, another of the four elements must become the hidden one.  This construct can help to explain the ineffectiveness of school committees, especially when two elements such as enrollment and retention are lumped together as a singular process, or marketing is connected with development.  Creating static groups such as these creates conflict when the realization is made that marketing must also connect with enrollment.  When that happens, then marketing can connect with enrollment, while retention connects with asset management in the form of financial aid, allowing retention to become a stand-alone element.  These five elements then continue to be connected to one another, causing a different element to stand alone until it can connect with an element, causing another to stand alone.  In this living model, 3 leads to 4 which leads to 5 which leads to 3 which leads to 4 which leads to 5 ad infinitum.  Notice this expansion and collapse is similar to respiration, validating the assertion that the system is indeed a “living” one since it seems to “breathe” in the same way that living creatures inhale and exhale.

Each tetrahedronic system creates an “emergent principle” – a 6th element, if you will – that remains constant even though the system changes. For instance, in the case of Development/Retention/Enrollment/Asset Management/Marketing, Advancement is the emergent principle. This remains even though the other 5 elements shift position, recombine and separate again.

Let’s take a look at the “statements” a school needs to create relates to the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How elements of an organization:

WHERE – Vision

WHO – Values

WHY – Case

HOW – Strategic or Operational Plan

WHAT – Mission

Isn’t it interesting that the Mission is actually the last thing that’s determined; yet, it’s usually the first thing a company tries to create to define themselves.

It can be argued that the emergent property that comes from this system is WHEN, since it’s the only one that remains.  However, WHEN is related to timelines or milestones that may be set to accomplish the strategic plan, which is tied to HOW.

Many times, schools erroneously determine that the emergent principle is WHAT, since it’s the Mission of the school that does not change.  But, it can.  For instance, the mission of the Catholic school when first started in this country is not the same mission Catholic schools have today.  Further, to say that WHAT emerges from the interaction of WHO, WHERE, WHEN, WHY and HOW would infer that WHEN refers to timelines, or, perhaps, God’s time (Kairos), since we may just be planting seeds while others reap the harvest of our work.  Others may argue that it’s the Vision which is the emergent principle, and still others could suggest that the staff and administration of the school need to have ingrained values relative to the faith identity of the school.  You can see how the elements of the system can take a higher priority at different times, depending on the circumstance.

The emergent principle, however, is constant.  Therefore, if HOW and WHEN are taken as a whole, then the emergent principle of the system is the entity itself – whether it’s a school, a church, or another non-profit organization.

Sometimes it helps to have a model to realize how systems work. For my DREAM framework, there are two models: one is two-dimensional, while the other is three-dimensional.

The two-dimensional model is akin to a SWOT analysis chart, but with an element at the intersection of the four quadrants. For math majors, this is akin to a Cartesian Coordinate System, where the element at the center correlates to the “Origin.” The technical name for this shape is “Quincunx.” The quadrants, if you will, are then labelled in the following manner:

Quadrant I. Retention

Quadrant II. Enrollment

Quadrant III. Development

Quadrant IV. Asset Management

Linear thinkers would look at this and say, “I get it! Let’s start with Marketing since it’s in the middle, then focus on Retention, then work on Enrollment, then Development, then we’ll work on Asset Management when we have assets to manage.” Most individuals see numbers in front of words and automatically think, “Priority.” This erroneous mindset is why many organizations fail today.

Systems thinking says that ALL elements are necessary for the system to function properly. If your car’s engine loses its serpentine belt, it will still run, but not for long since the alternator won’t continue to charge the battery.

The three-dimensional model is that of the tetrahedron. Most individuals would look at this shape and call it a 3-sided pyramid. Once again, for you math majors, you know that “tetra” means “four.” The fourth side is the base, and is usually hidden from view. However, just as the extra important point must be named at the center of the previous model, it must be recognized that the fifth “side” to this shape is also hidden.  Just as real as the base, it’s hidden from view – but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Think of it this way – if the earth had no core, what would happen? The surface would collapse into the center. Perhaps not all at once, but definitely little by little, then, at some point, all at once. And isn’t that how most institutions find themselves in trouble? It’s at this point (the tipping point) where frantic action is taken, which, however, heroic, may be not enough to sustain the organization.

Let’s take another look at what happens when the “inside” component is Asset Management. The school is very much involved in Enrollment and Retention, since a committee may be examining those elements, and a school can also have a Marketing and Development committee. Sometimes, there are two different committees created for those activities. However, when it comes to Asset Management, the school may have no bookkeeper, since the bookkeeper may reside at the supporting parish or church office, and have little interaction with the school. Or, while the school functions five days a week, a part-time bookkeeper is there 2 days a week to process tuition and fees, and checks and cash “sit” at the school until that person comes in to work on their next scheduled day. Since no one at the schools sees “Asset Management” on a day-to-day basis, the unspoken inference is that it is less important than the rest of the school’s activities. Further, if the finances are controlled by someone outside the school, the school may make the correlation that the school has no control over it.  If you believe this, then you have absolutely no control over the school, since Asset Management is solid center of the system that holds the sides in place and gives substance to the shape.

In the “strategic” two-dimensional model, Marketing ties all the other elements together in its position as the “Origin.”

For schools that need to develop their Development programs, Development cannot be used as a base since there is no Development to speak of. Asset Management must become the base, and all the other elements shift so that the inside element that holds everything together becomes, ironically, Development. If there is no control over how the school collects its tuition and fees, it is designed for failure since there is both no base nor core to support it. An Asset Management system is necessary even before Development efforts begin to ensure some type of base-oriented support.

If Marketing is shifted as above, to the “inside” position to make it congruent to the strategic two-dimensional model, all the elements shift again. This time, however, the system created by the three visible sides becomes Development-Asset Management-Retention, with Enrollment as the base. Once again, you can see that Development produces gifts which contribute to the school’s Assets, which can be used for financial aid to assist with Retention efforts. However, if a school has eroding enrollment, it cannot stand on a base which continues to crumble.

This article emphasized the relationship of the DREAM elements in your school.  However there are four other systems at work as well.  Those will be discussed in articles to be published over the next several weeks.  At this time, it’s important to realize that in order for the elements of this system to be effective, someone must have responsibility for them.  In other words, ask yourself this question:  “Who is responsible for seeing that enrollment increases every year?” and then repeat the question substituting another DREAM element (development, retention, asset management and marketing) for enrollment.  If you can’t readily identify that element’s “champion,” then you may have gained some insight as to why your school may be struggling at this point in history.

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2016