A Gift through Time

November 13th, 2015

Cathann Kress touring USS IowaI recently spent some time out on the west coast with national meetings and conferences. Those of you who know my appreciation for history won’t be surprised to learn that I made a point of touring the USS Iowa, now permanently located in Long Beach as a museum. It’s impressive and I couldn’t help but ponder that I was standing where incredible leaders like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once stood. The USS Iowa was known as the Battleship of Presidents because NO other battleship in our nation’s history has been host to more U.S. Presidents than the IOWA. Her other accolades include designation as the “World’s Greatest Naval Ship” due to her big guns, heavy armor, fast speed, longevity and modernization. She kept pace with technology for more than 50 years.

As part of the tour, I read an essay by Professor James Sefton of California State University on why the Battleship Iowa museum matters. In it, Professor Sefton argues that one of the most important elements of education is continuity and the way we learn how we are related to earlier generations. This reflection helps us begin to understand how their decisions and actions affect ours and helps us contemplate what we have done with their legacy.

Professor Sefton (and I’ll forgive him for this, since he’s a history professor) also argues that history is the most important vehicle for securing continuity and enables us to educate ourselves and secure our heritage for the future. Here’s where I respectfully disagree: History is not the most important vehicle, relationships are. History is the collective story of people and their relationships, that’s why I find it so fascinating.

Of course, this made me think about our collective work — our decisions and actions and what our legacy will be that future generations of Iowans will experience. I regularly think about a future Vice President for Extension and Outreach (someday way in the future) and hope that my decisions and actions today will make his or her job easier and more productive. A legacy is essentially a gift handed through time from the past to the future. It’s a vision, a hope, and a commitment rolled up into a series of actions and decisions and delivered years later. Those sailors serving aboard this battleship had a vision of a strong IOWA. So do we. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Becoming Less Wrong

October 27th, 2015

The other day I was working on figuring out how to reorganize the kitchen at home. This is an ongoing effort because there are now small appliances in my house which apparently, the original designer never foresaw when the kitchen was designed. Like the Keurig coffee machine, which doesn’t quite fit under the cabinet. Or the major duty blender which makes smoothies but is not like the old blender we used to have. I will admit, there are a few items in the drawer in my kitchen that are a bit of a mystery to me, like the ice sphere mold my son bought me and the remote grill thermometer my brother sent last Christmas. In other words, my kitchen has gotten somewhat complex.

Some things are complicated. Other things are complex. For example, airplanes are complicated. But air traffic control is complex. The more complex something is, the more information it takes even just to describe it. To manage complexity effectively, we have to account for that which is beyond our understanding. Complexity tends to yield what many call “wicked problems”- those predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble. Wicked problems emerge when we have uncertain data, multiple value conflicts, economic constraints, ambiguity, resistance to change, limited time, no central authority, or no clear answer.

Business consultant Greg Satell says that instead of assuming we can find all the right answers to complex problems, we should strive to become less wrong over time. That means shifting from finding solutions to improving our problem-solving abilities. We have to think through problems to figure out whether we’re even applying the right type of solution.

The truth is there are few problems left which have easy and simple solutions. To break down complexity, we need to stay focused on our priorities. We have to keep our principles in mind. We have to ensure that people understand their roles and purpose, because it’s easier to innovate when you know where the  boundaries are, and we have to be comfortable with the ongoing experimentation. We may have to partner with others who have expertise we don’t have. We may have to operate in fiscal situations we did not foresee and evaluate opportunities that are uncertain. We have to be ready to take responsibility for that which we cannot control. In Extension and Outreach we can solve some problems. We can strive daily to become less wrong. See you there.

— Cathann


The Path that Makes Future Change Easier

September 24th, 2015

Recently, I was reading some articles on software development. I know. When I started a conversation at home with this sentence, my daughter looked at me in disbelief. The real story is I was stuck in an airport late at night and the only reading material had been abandoned by a previous passenger. I thumbed through most of it, but one section caught my attention.

Apparently in the software development world, there is a group of methods for practice referred to as Agile, in which solutions evolve through collaboration between cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning and continuous improvement. Agile as a practice requires just a few steps:

  • Find out where you are.
  • Take a small step toward your goal.
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you just learned.
  • Repeat.
  • How to do it: When faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.

And that’s it. According to Andy Hunt, those four steps and one practice encompass everything there is to know about effective software development. Of course, this involves a fair amount of thinking and some additional cautions. Don’t confuse the model with reality. Thinking that your project should “go this way” like it did in your head or on paper might trap you. The only thing a project is supposed to do is succeed.

Also, don’t spell out too much detail too soon. Hunt calls that premature optimization and essentially suggests that detail too early can act like instant glue — limiting innovation and reducing options. So give yourself (and your colleagues) some room to find out where you are, experiment, and adjust your understanding. Then pick the path that makes future change easier. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Strong Iowa

September 17th, 2015

EOADV15-37C-messageplatform400wAccording to Simon Sinek, organizations and the people within them know what they do, and many know how they do it, but very few know why they do what they do. Why does Extension and Outreach exist? What’s our purpose? Why do we get out of bed in the morning?

Simon Sinek’s model for inspirational leadership starts with what he calls a golden circle, and “Why?” is in the middle of that circle. A leadership expert, Sinek says it’s all about purpose. According to Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.” Sinek’s work is based in neurobiology and it explains a lot about how we approach our work and what inspires us to take action.

So what do we believe in ISU Extension and Outreach? What’s in our golden circle?

  • WHY? We want a strong Iowa.
  • HOW? We are everywhere for Iowans. We serve as a 99-county campus, connecting the needs of Iowans with Iowa State University research and resources.
  • WHAT? We provide education and partnerships designed to solve today’s problems and prepare for the future.

When we start with why – a strong Iowa – our purpose is clear. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. See Simon Sinek’s TED talk.

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Better Men and Women

September 10th, 2015

“Extension work is not intended primarily to make better crops and animals, but better men and women.” — M.C. Burritt, Director, Cornell University Extension, 1922

When I was with the Department of Defense, we continually were reminded that our job was to serve as “defenders of the Constitution.” That’s heady stuff but makes sense, since DOD’s mission is to deter war and to protect the security of our country. However, there’s more than one way to preserve democracy. In ISU Extension and Outreach we can serve in this role by cultivating informed and engaged citizens. I urge you to consider whether we’re taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Too often we tend to undersell ourselves. We say we’re just providing education or we’re merely a neutral source of information. But we are so much more. The only thing that separates us from a robust and dynamic future is our view of ourselves, our institution and its colleges, our participants, and our role in connecting them.

Remember our “Young Iowans Speak” forum in 2014? We wanted to engage the 18- to 35-year-olds we weren’t seeing in our programs, so we went to them. They said they wanted us to be their lifelong partner for retooling, reinvention, and reawakening. They believed that Iowa State should act as a resource to society and as a co-learner with citizens. They said ISU Extension and Outreach could help them find their “true north” as they seek personal and professional satisfaction and success for their communities. Sounds like they want us to help them become informed and engaged citizens.

That’s exactly what we’re doing when we focus on building the capacity of Iowans. We relentlessly pursue creating remarkable experiences and delivering value. We engage with Iowans in real time and work on issues they care about. We create better men and women for a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Fair Winds and Following Seas

September 3rd, 2015

This week found me attending the naming ceremony for the fifth USS Iowa. It will be one of the Navy’s newest Virginia Class attack submarines. As someone who came here from the Pentagon, with two Air Force veteran parents, and a brother who was a career submariner in the Navy, these moments mean a lot to me.

I’ve mentioned a few times the important role Iowa has played in our nation and the world with our forward-thinking people. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reminded me that ships bearing our state name also are similarly distinguished. The previous USS Iowa BB-61 was known as the Battleship of Presidents and carried Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to meet with Prime Minister Churchill and Josef Stalin. The first Iowa was a gunboat dating back to 1864. The second Iowa fired the first shot at Santiago Bay in the Spanish-American War.

Last Saturday, I was up in Forest City for Operation LZ to officially welcome back Iowa’s Vietnam and Vietnam era veterans and thank them. I learned about the distinguished service of some of Iowa’s veterans and their selflessness. Iowans have a long history of showing up, serving others, and being pretty humble about it. That’s certainly what I find with my colleagues and partners with Extension and Outreach, too.

As summer fair and field day season winds down and fall programs gear up, it may be easy to feel overwhelmed with all we have to do. Maybe it’s the nature of extension work, or maybe it’s our desire to give our all to help Iowans. I understand that, but I also know that along with meeting the needs of Iowans, we have to take care of ourselves. Vietnam veteran and POW Larry Spencer, speaking at Operation LZ, said that when you get down, remember if there’s a doorknob on your side of the door, it’s a good day. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Here’s to Bright Days

July 30th, 2015

Thanks to recent rainy mornings and later day sunshine, an old song lyric has been playing in my head (thank you, Johnny Nash): “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.” (And yes, it’s at about this point in the song that my children start rolling their eyes.)

With summer two-thirds gone, field day season in full swing, Community Gardens popping, 4-H camps and activities in rain and mud, and several more county fairs and the Iowa State Fair still to go,  ISU Extension and Outreach is caught up in a whirlwind of activity across the state. In addition, we’re dealing with both the farm and the human side of avian influenza. And let’s not forget the emerald ash borer. The insect pest has been found in 26 counties and that number will increase. It all certainly can feel overwhelming, particularly when you throw in Iowa summer heat indices in the 100s, deluges of rain and mud, and trying to keep up with all that email back in the office.

I encourage you to give yourself a moment to step back and to see clearly what are (and what really aren’t) obstacles in your way. Because even with the rain, the heat, and musical earworms, ISU Extension and Outreach is still the #BestJobEver. Thank you for your long hours, hard work, patience, and unending dedication as you provide research-based education and continue this lifelong partnership with the people of Iowa. We have many bright days ahead. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.
Learn more about ISU Extension and Outreach at the 2015 Iowa State Fair.

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Legacy of Genius

July 16th, 2015

C.J. Gauger and Cathann KressA few months ago we lost an Iowa icon, C.J. Gauger. As Iowa’s state 4-H leader from 1959-1979, C.J. was a visionary. He saw the need for change in 4-H and he knew how to make it happen. Even though it wasn’t always easy or popular, with his guidance, the boys’ and girls’ 4-H programs came together and emphasized life skills development for all youth, rural or urban. C.J. truly believed in listening to Iowa’s young people and involving them in shaping their 4-H program.

One of the first people I went to see when I returned to Iowa State was C.J. He was so very proud of Iowa 4-H and we shared ideas about how to enhance and grow the program. He also assured me that our desire to grow 4-H was shared by many all across the state. I have found that as usual, C.J. was right.

C.J.’s legacy lives on through one of every five Iowa youth, who participates in our 4-H programs today. His place in 4-H’s history paved the way for 4-H’s future. C.J.’s memorial service is July 17 and the Iowa 4-H Foundation has set up a “Genius of 4-H” endowment in his honor. That’s very fitting. Because as C.J. said, “the greatest contribution of 4-H is the leadership, both in youth and adults, it has developed and which has gone on to enhance the lives of themselves and others in unlimited, never ending ways. This is the genius of 4-H.”

C.J. simply enjoyed helping young people grow into their full potential. We carry on this legacy of genius. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Our Tenacity of Purpose

July 9th, 2015

Cathann Kress receives Spirit of Crazy Horse awardA week ago representatives from Reclaiming Youth International, the Lakota Nation, and ISU Extension and Outreach wrapped a Lakota star quilt around me in a traditional Lakota ceremony. I was receiving The Spirit of Crazy Horse Award, and by wrapping me in the quilt they were symbolically honoring me and protecting me on my journey through life. A week later I’m still deeply honored by the experience. I’ve received awards before, but nothing comes close to this.

Crazy Horse was a significant leader as he cared for his people and their way of life. This award which bears his name honors those who have a tenacity of purpose in advancing work with children and youth. The ceremony was part of Reclaiming Youth International’s Circle of Courage Youth Development Conference in Rapid City, S.D. The Circle of Courage integrates the cultural wisdom of tribal peoples, the practice wisdom of youth development professional pioneers, and findings of modern youth development research — which demonstrate that to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. (Sound familiar? These are the essential elements of 4-H.)

We live in a world that tends to focus not as much on wisdom, but on metrics. We concentrate on GPAs and impact statements. We count the number of refereed articles we write and participants we reach, and, of course, the amount of grant dollars we acquire. We keep score of our accumulations of these metrics and others, and we assume that what we amass speaks to the totality of the work being accomplished. We have grown to believe that this equals value. But value and accumulation are not the same.

Some things cannot be measured, but only felt. The value of kindness. The value of personal growth. The value of patience. The value of showing up year after year to do work that needs to be done – our tenacity of purpose. Just because our contributions cannot be easily measured in the short-term, does not mean they are not worth making. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S.  You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Where We Are and Looking Ahead

June 25th, 2015

Four years ago when I interviewed for the vice president position, I challenged the participants in my open forum to think about ISU Extension and Outreach five years in the future and imagine failure. Why? Because it’s a way for an organization to prevent its own death. The participants in my forum provided six consistent reasons ISU Extension and Outreach might fail. (See my blog post,  Pre-mortem for Organizations.)

As you know, I got the job and now I am beginning Year 5. So I’d like to take another look at those reasons for potential failure.

  • In 2011 my forum participants – these were ISU Extension and Outreach faculty and staff, mind you – said the first reason we would fail would be poor communication both internally and externally.
  • Second, they said our inability to change would do us in – our unwillingness to let go of familiar programs as well as irrelevant programs.
  • The third reason was isolation from constituents and critical partners, as well as field, campus, and upper administration.
  • Fourth, we were suffering from an unclear vision and mission – we weren’t in sync with the values of Iowa, constituents, and the university.
  • Number 5 was poor leadership – leaders who don’t motivate others, solve problems holistically, or build public support for the public good.
  • The final reason was insufficient resources, since the participants were concerned about continuing decreases in funding.

I think we have made gains in some of these areas, and in some we still struggle, but we are trying to figure out how to more fully address them. So what do you think? I challenge you to respond – and please be honest. Over the next three weeks, add your comments to my blog. Then I’ll summarize your comments, add my own, and get back to you with an update on where we are now. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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