There are several constructs I use to explain systems thinking, and differentiate it from linear thinking. One is The Karve, which is a small Viking ship, with oars on both sides of the boat; another is a Quincunx, which is an arrangement of five items the way the dots on the “5” side of a die are arranged. The third is a Tetrahedron.
A tetrahedron is a commonly called a three-sided pyramid, even though it has four sides. Each side is an equilateral triangle. One side is not more important than another; they are equally important to the shape’s dimensions, since if you change the dimension of one of the triangles, and the entire object must adjust to accommodate the change and to maintain its shape. Three of the sides are visible, while the fourth side, the base, is not.
My Web site at SchoolAdvancement.com began with weekly marketing tips in November of 2004, and has used this figure for the past 14 years! The three visible sides refer to the processes that “can be seen” by the school community and its constituents – Marketing, Enrollment and Retention of students. Marketing leads to Enrollment, Enrollment leads to Retention, and Retention leads to Marketing, and the system continues. The base is Development (as opposed to Fundraising) as the means of growing long-term financial support of the school from alumni, businesses and community members (note how these constituent groups begin with an A, a B and a C) which get involved, become engaged and then committed to the school, transforming them into donors. For you chemistry majors, A + B + C –> D.
However, there is a fifth side to complete the system. It’s the side which no one (or, at least, very few) sees. It’s the “in”side. Asset Management connects each side to each other completely – and not just at the edges. These five elements, Development, Retention, Enrollment, Asset Management and Marketing, can be combined to form two form two acronyms. The first is DREAM. It’s relevant to a school’s future, since one of the key statements a school must have for its continued success is a Vision statement. It describes where the school sees itself in the future, and a compelling vision is necessary to create excitement about the possibilities the school can offer to its students as well as impact the local community. The five elements can also form the acronym, ARMED, which is a more appropriate one for today’s reality. Armed is a status of preparation, ready to face the obstacles and challenges that stand in the way of achieving the DREAM. And, while many schools have dreams, there are those which aren’t fully prepared (or armed) to face the challenges that lie ahead. In other words, dreams without actions or a plan to make them a reality remain dreams; once action is taken, one must be “armed” to face the challenges to achieving the “dream.”
In some faith-based schools, marketing, enrollment and retention are activities that the school is very aware of, but many times, feel powerless to control. Development is incorrectly seen as fundraising, and, if there is no development director, is often left to the parent-teacher organization. Asset Management in the form of tuition collection and financial aid allocation often happens at the church or parish, and sometimes there is very little interaction with school administration. Failure to connect these activities and realizing the systemic influence these elements have on each other is one of the two most profound issues that have landed many faith-based schools in the position they find themselves in today. If you’d like to know the other one, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the phrase “The center of the target” in the subject line.
There are four other systems such as this in our schools (namely, FACTS, SIGNS, TEACH and FAITH), for a total of five systems composed of five elements each, that are constantly at work. If any element of these systems is missing, the entire system suffers. If any element is more developed (or “better”) than another, the system also suffers. For instance, a faith-based school may tout and be able to demonstrate academic excellence of its students, but if the roof is leaking and the computer monitors look like a small cream-colored television set, parents will think twice about enrolling their children there.
Also note the system formed by the five systems (which would be “metasystems” thinking). The first letters of the acronyms SIGNS, TEACH, ARMED, FACTS and FAITH form the “super”anagram STAFF. The “Tetrahedronics” articles that describe each of these system will soon be moved to The STAFF System section of this site for easy access and reference. This section can be reached from the main navigation in the header of the Web site.
So just how important is systems thinking? Linear thinking is taught and utilized, making it active in our schools today. For example, first grade leads to second grade; addition leads to multiplication; division leads to fractions; words lead to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to stories; preschool leads to elementary school which leads to high school with leads to college. It’s also the basis of a “If we only had enough money” mindset. Linear thinking also leads to process thinking, which is more of an “if/then” construct rather than the “first/next” of linear thinking. Process thinking is used in the upper grades of secondary school when studying the scientific method, as well as the decision making process when a student decides on which college to apply to, or to pursue a career via trade school, or perhaps enlist for military service. It’s also at the heart of coding and computer programming today. However, linear thinking and process thinking constructs are only two of the three types of thinking essential to a rudimentary functioning system. Systems thinking is necessary as well. To solve the problems we face today, and will face tomorrow, we need to become adept at systems thinking, since, as Einstein has been quoted as saying, “We can’t solve today’s problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”