Defining and Designing Experience

February 26th, 2015

We often say we want people to not only gain information from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, but also have an“experience.” When someone makes this comment in a meeting, we all nod our heads in agreement. As I was driving back from eastern Iowa last week, I did what I often do, and started wondering about the stuff we all nod our heads about.

What do we mean when we say we want people to have an experience? What kind? Who gets to have it?  Who is defining the experience? Do we all mean the same thing when we say experience? I looked it up, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation. (See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/experience for starters.) So I did a little reading. Brian Solis, an expert in branding, says we are in a new era of marketing and service, “in which your brand is defined by those who experience it.” Solis argues that no one engages with a company or organization hoping for ordinary. Everyone is seeking a remarkable experience.

I think the future of our organization lies in shared experiences. However, do we have a responsibility to plan those experiences, or is whatever our clients experience by default good enough? We have to consider what these experiences involve, because our clients will tell their friends not only about what they learn, but also about what they actually experience. Do their experiences align with expectations of the ISU Extension and Outreach brand or are there gaps? How do we create and deliver meaningful and shareable experiences to ensure that more Iowans engage with us? What are we asking people to align with if we haven’t defined the experience? What do we want them to be part of?

When Iowans are having an experience with Extension and Outreach, it should be clear to them that they are engaging with Iowa State University. There should be no question that they are receiving research-based education. They should readily understand that we are their lifelong partner as they seek personal and professional satisfaction and success for their communities.  We provide education and deliver experiences; both are equally important. We need to define and design the experiences with as much thought and effort as we define and design the education so Iowans will engage with ISU Extension and Outreach as lifelong partners. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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More Than a Cup of Joe

February 5th, 2015

This week, I had an interesting conversation with my children about a cup of coffee. We had agreed to meet for coffee and then had quite a discussion about where we wanted to go. Each of us suggested several places, and as we argued their merits, I realized something bigger was afoot and relevant to those of us in Extension and Outreach.

My middle son – ever the practical one – was all about who had the most reasonable price with minimum fuss. My older son cited his choice for its convenience, ample parking, and short lines. My daughter’s choice, however, at first was met with derision. She suggested her choice because she “felt comfortable” sitting there. “It’s about coffee,” son 2 retorted, and as she dug in, I realized that no, it wasn’t. As we all gathered at the coffee shop she had advocated, it was clear to me that some things become meaningful and create value in our lives beyond their utility or convenience. It’s worth the extra effort to seek them out, because of how we feel about them or what we believe about the experience.

Sometimes people just want a convenient cup of joe, but sometimes they want more. If we provide them with an exceptional experience, they’ll come back again and tell their friends. Our goal should be to create both meaning and value, as well as utility and convenience. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Our First Name

January 29th, 2015

A lot of people know me by just my first name – family, friends, and colleagues at many levels. I’m often the only Cathann they know. The name’s a bit unusual. I was the first girl born in my father’s family after nearly two generations of boys. My parents put it together to honor Catherine and Annie, two family matriarchs whom, let’s face it, no one wanted to tick off.

I’ve had times when it was inconvenient or difficult to have such a name, such as the many times I’ve had to help people pronounce or spell it: No, it’s not Caitlin, Cathleen, Chatham, or Calhoun. Over time, I’ve discovered that there are two main ways to pronounce it (CATH-ann or ca-THANN). When I was younger, I resented that I could never find a personalized pen, necklace, or bike tag with my name emblazoned on it. It also could be cumbersome. I recall quite vividly that it took me a long time to get even one “Cathann Arceneaux” written during penmanship class in elementary school, while “Joe Fry” sitting next to me whipped through about ten repetitions of his name. And yes, it has often been shortened to “Cathy” or “Annie” or “Cat” or “Hanna.”

However, mostly I’ve loved my name, because of what it represents and because our names say a lot about who we are.

I’ve noticed the same thing with Extension and Outreach. Some people aren’t sure what to call us, given our 100 county offices, our program areas, and our many campus units and departments. It can be cumbersome to manage all the parts of our names.  We have a multitude of nicknames. However, one person who is sure is Jeff Johnson, president and CEO of the Iowa State University Alumni Association. According to Jeff, whatever your place in this organization, “Iowa State University is your first name.”

“Cardinal and gold aren’t everybody’s colors, but they’re our colors. If it wasn’t for Iowa State University, Extension and Outreach wouldn’t exist – not the other way around,” Jeff said. He isn’t asking us to become Iowa State cheerleaders. Rather, we’re partners, working together in the business of higher education.

We are Iowa State University Extension and Outreach whether we identify with a campus unit, a college department, or a county office or a specific program anywhere in the state. We are a capacity-building unit of Iowa State, providing access to education, developing diverse and meaningful partnerships, and creating significant impact throughout our state. We even have the personalized pens. It’s a first name we all can be proud of because of what it represents. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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1,000 Strawberry Points

January 22nd, 2015

StrawberryPoint200Icons can be widely known symbols, like the little bird on my cell phone that helps me find my Twitter account. Other icons are objects of devotion, as evidenced by teenage girls swooning over the boy band One Direction. And there’s a wide range between these two extremes. In any case, icons offer insights into what we find important. They mean something to us.

If you’ve ever been to Strawberry Point, Iowa, you know there’s just something iconic about that great big strawberry that’s high in the sky above downtown. That giant berry represents a distinct identity and pride of place in a one-of-a-kind community. That’s why we used it in our 2014 annual report to help illustrate how many people ISU Extension and Outreach serves. Last year more than 1 million people directly benefited from our programs. That’s one thousand Strawberry Points.

There are other Iowa icons in our annual report as well – the High Trestle Trail, the American Gothic house, and “Main Street,” to name a few. They’re a shortcut to make our point: We are everywhere for Iowans. Iowa State educates more Iowa students than any other university, and ISU Extension and Outreach educates more Iowans. Having said that, it’s awfully hard to boil our work down to numbers or a brief report, because we all know that it’s more than numbers and more than Web clicks. It’s about children and their families, businesses and farmers, teachers, manufacturers, local leaders, caregivers, and legislators. The list goes on and on, because our work is about building capacity and mostly, it’s about people and our institution’s lifelong partnership with them. We know Iowa’s people and places, and we look forward to continuing to serve our fellow Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Review our 2014 annual report. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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That Which Must Not Be Named

January 8th, 2015

Happy New Year!

There has been a lot of chatter in social media about the coming extinction of Cooperative Extension. (What a great opener to follow my new year wishes, huh?)  It’s not the result of people contemplating what lies ahead in a new year. It’s not because in 2014 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act. This kind of talk tends to come up now and again as people come to grips with change. How much longer will people seek out extension when they can be online 24/7? How will we meet the challenges of the future?  What will we need to do differently?  I’m glad to see this being discussed.

One of the people taking about it is Jim Langcuster (the “ExtensionGuy” on Twitter), a retired news and public affairs specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. He compares extension to a dinosaur and says that to avoid extinction, extension must become a “bona fide digital delivery system” with extension educators as technical professionals. (Read his blog post.)

We’d be fools not to pay attention to this challenge. However, I don’t think extension is facing a precipice where we must go completely digital or go home. True, people want easier access to information – and the research in library science points that out more and more. But they also want an “experience,” which is hard to have with only a digital presence. We need to enhance our digital access while focusing the experience of extension for our constituents. A great example of that was a recent Farm Bill meeting I attended in Blairstown. Ryan Drollette did a great job of combining a face-to-face experience, which allowed him to tailor the pace and content, with the online resources including our Ag Decision Maker.

We need to talk about these challenges and how we do our work. If for no other reason than it’s good to do what my kids and friends call “naming our Voldemorts.” In the Harry Potter movies, the bad guy gains power through fear, even the fear of saying his name. We all have Voldemorts, fears we are too nervous to even name, and these fears prevent us from really exploring how we more fully address and resolve them. However, we diminish their fear-inducing power when we can name them. Let’s name this Voldemort and accept the challenges that change brings by focusing on how we provide access to education and develop meaningful lifelong partnerships to create significant impact for Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Whatever the future holds

December 11th, 2014

Last week I blogged about listening with purpose and how in 2014 we heard from our partners as well as young Iowans, ages 18 to 35. Well, we also listened to really young Iowans, elementary school age. We asked them what they thought the future would be like, and oh boy, they told us. Imagine flying cars and jet packs and travelling through time to give dinosaurs a second chance. On a more serious level they talked about becoming scientists, taking care of the environment, and embracing differences.

Now some of the things they predict may sound far-fetched to you (fish ham?), but I’m old enough to recall when a hand-held portable “communicator” was Star Trek science fiction and now most of us carry smart phones around, or when the idea of GPS-driven farm equipment would have been unthinkable, just to name a couple.

The point is — some things change and change rapidly and will keep changing as we watch the future unfold.  We need to accept that, prepare for it, and yes, even figure out how to embrace it.  And some things — like a simple desire that we all be kind to each other — never change.  We’ll hang on to some of those no matter what comes our way.

So, here’s to the future. May Iowa’s children continue to inspire us with their dreams and wisdom, may we stay open to the possibilities, and may the squirrels never organize and attack.  Iowa State University will be ready to serve as a lifelong partner — whatever the future holds. See you there.

—  Cathann

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

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Listening with Purpose

December 4th, 2014

One of my favorite family events is coming soon. To kick off our holidays, members of my family gather and light candles, bake a Buche de Noel, and then proceed to eat and talk until most of the candles go out. Stories are told, and retold, often embellished. Sometimes myths are corrected or new stories emerge. My favorite part of the event is watching everyone’s faces in the candlelight and listening — really listening to our family lore from the silly to the sublime and hearing it told from different perspectives. It’s been fun to hear about the escapades of my elderly uncles as young rapscallions, to hear younger members tell a new story, or remember with fondness tales of those we’ve lost. I always gain strength from listening and it broadens my understanding of my family.

Sometimes we just need to get someone else’s point of view, to gather different perceptions, to see issues from other angles. To limit the future to only what we know shrinks our capacity. It’s easy to fall into patterns of preserving our view over all else — but this is how important listening is — it is the beginning of learning.

That’s why in 2014 we called upon potential constituents and long-time partners to listen to their perspectives firsthand about how to best serve the needs of Iowans. We heard from Iowa Millennials and Gen X’ers during our Young Iowans Speak forum. It was the first in a series of “Extension Reconsidered” forums held throughout the nation to mark the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act. The young Iowans, ages 18 to 35, were from both urban and rural places. Some had prior experience with us, while others knew nothing about our work. We asked the young Iowans to share their views and visions of the future and Iowa State’s role in that future.

From May through November, West Pottawattamie, Kossuth, Warren, Dubuque and Linn county extension councils hosted town meetings. Participants in these sessions included rural economic development groups; community college presidents; Councils of Governments; representatives from K-12 schools, public health, and local nonprofit organizations; and other community leaders. We asked our partners about why they engage with ISU Extension and Outreach, how we can improve our relationship, and ways we can further collaborate.

Then we listened. Intentionally. Respectfully. With purpose.  Because here’s the thing: listening makes us stronger and it broadens our understanding of our work.  See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Watch the video, get the story, and print the report to learn more about Young Iowans Speak and Partner Perspectives. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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Law of Least Effort

November 20th, 2014

This week, I was considering some of our programs and I found myself wondering: When we need to get new information, how do we find it? A whole bunch of ideas came to me (after all, I do work in education). However, I decided to spend a day noting how I, as well as the people around me, sought and obtained new information. Here’s what I discovered. Most of the time, we ask whoever is handy. I’m serious. Take my daughter for example, who is in physics this semester. She asked me for clarification on a problem she was working on with her homework. Was it my reputation for being a physics wiz that compelled her to seek my help? Nope. I happened to be in the kitchen at the moment she had a question.

According to Daniel Kahneman, and a slew of other brain scientists, a general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

This law or principle is a broad theory that covers fields from biology to Web page design. We are like water; we choose the path of least resistance. Research has shown that information-seeking clients will tend to use the most convenient search method, in the least exacting mode available. Information seeking stops as soon as MINIMALLY ACCEPTABLE results are found, in most cases. In other words, seekers will use tools that are most familiar and easiest to use to find results, even if the results only meet the minimum of what they need. Or like my daughter demonstrated, humans are more likely to ask the person sitting next to them – who may know very little – than to consult a specialist a block away as long as the person sitting next to them gives an answer within a basic threshold of acceptability. Hmmm. This has implications for our work.

Much of this research has been used in library science to redesign search tools, but it’s also shaped Web design and educational methodology. That got me wondering if in Extension and Outreach we have kept up with how information seekers want to access information. How have we adapted to make it easy, convenient, and handy to get information from us? Fifty years ago, “convenient and handy” was a physical location; how about today? Clearly, we believe we provide both information and an experience for our citizens, but if we don’t modify systems to address how humans seek information, will they seek us out for the experience? Essentially, how do we ensure we’re “handy” when our citizens are seeking information? See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Getting to “Could”

November 13th, 2014

Life in the fast lane sometimes can lead to operating on automatic pilot. I recently read an article about a work team in a large organization that was so caught up in doing what had to be done, that they never focused on what could be done. They were tired and burned out, so much so that complacency had become the new normal.

To get them out of this rut, their team leader started giving low-cost prizes for random deviant behavior; in other words, rewarding team members when they would deviate from their complacency and try something new. In fact, any member of the team could award a prize to any other member. Simply acknowledging that someone did something differently, didn’t ask permission, or broke a norm in search of better results ignited the team’s creative sparks — and actually led to better results overall. It’s an example of disruptive leadership that leads to innovation.

Disruptive leadership and the innovation that can stem from it often conflicts with “the way we’ve always done it” in an organization. However, it’s the type of change that can lead to transformation, when it causes us to go after new audiences or new methods.

Because there is so much to do in Extension and Outreach, we also can get caught up in doing what has to be done. We may not need cheap prizes, but a dose of disruptive leadership would do us all some good. We can challenge each other to move from what has to be done so we can get to what could be done. See you there.

— Cathann

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

The article I reference can be found here:  http://www.projecteve.com/staying-hungry-why-disruptive-leadership-works/?utm_content=bufferbe0ff&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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Pick Up the Can

October 30th, 2014

When you’re a kid, kicking the can down the road means just that: When you’re out walking, you stop and kick the can that’s lying in the road in front of you. Then you continue walking until you reach the can and you kick it again. It’s a way to while away some time when walking down a country road.

When we’re talking about leadership, kicking the can down the road is delaying a decision in hopes that the problem or issue will go away or somebody else will make the decision later. We avoid really dealing with the issue and finding the longer-term solution, because it’s often messy, difficult, or expensive. It’s a habit that, once started, can be awfully hard to break and yet, in the long run, it does little to serve the organization. While “kicking the can down the road” might allow us to solve the immediate problem or at least alleviate it, we are creating a new problem that likely will be inherited by those who follow in our footsteps, because our organization will get to the can again. And by then, the situation may be worse.

Our extension councils and Iowa State picked up the can when we renegotiated the Memorandum of Understanding and had the tough discussions about how we wanted to work together to be a stronger organization. Our program areas have been picking up the can as they consider how to focus and prioritize programs and determine outcomes.  I like to envision the person who will occupy my seat when I’m gone, and I consider what issues I should deal with to make it easier for him or her to fully live our mission.  All of us need to be willing to take on the issues and address them so that future leaders can move on to other opportunities and challenges, and not just react to the ones we delayed. Let’s keep thinking about how to pick up the can. See you there.

— Cathann

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