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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The Magic Continues

June 11th, 2015

Last week as I visited several communities across the state, it was quite common for Iowans to share their thoughts about Coach Hoiberg’s departure from Iowa State men’s basketball. While there is some sadness, for the most part Cyclone Nation is wishing Fred well as he pursues his dream to coach in the NBA. As I’ve thought about how we’ve been amazed by Fred’s coaching abilities over the past few years, I realized that with or without Fred we appreciate what we have going forward. We’ll show our support for the student athletes and our new Iowa State basketball coach Steve Prohm. The Mayor may have re-ignited Hilton Magic, but it will continue because of Cyclone Nation.

We also should appreciate what we have here in ISU Extension and Outreach. (Other extension services are amazed at what we have.) For example, we had the forethought 20 years ago to create our statewide online network. Other state extension services did not. When the network installation was completed on June 28, 1995, every county office had a local area network tying office computers with a file server and laser printer. A wide area network gave access to printers and file servers located in other offices. Plus, we all were connected to e-mail, Gopher (Remember Gopher?), and the World Wide Web. The project cost $2.1 million and was completed in 21 months. So as you read this message on your smartphone or iPad or laptop or desktop, wish a happy birthday to our ISU Extension and Outreach Information Network.

In addition, we’ve embedded ISU Extension and Outreach throughout the colleges of our university. Many extension services are astounded that we have elected county extension councils who guide local programs and levy taxes. In ISU Extension and Outreach, we continually have worked to build our capacity, and other extension services look to us to see what’s next on the horizon.

We appreciate the forward-thinking people who came before us (such as Perry Holden, Jessie Field Shambaugh, and more recently of course, Fred Hoiberg) and those who will follow us, as we strive to turn the world over to the next generation better than we found it. Even though our structure in ISU Extension and Outreach can be cumbersome, it has resiliency built into it, much more so than other states. We can rightly feel proud to be part of Iowa State University. We’re helping our state be strong. Our magic was ignited a long time ago, but it will continue because of ISU Extension and Outreach Nation. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Plan for Friction

June 4th, 2015

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but friction plays a pretty big role in our lives –both positive and negative. Friction is part of what makes it hard to get my bike up the next hill (take note those of you planning to ride RAGBRAI), but it’s also what makes it possible to stop my bike before the railroad tracks. While we can reduce or minimize friction, it’s always present.

So it’s not surprising that when engineers design engines they plan for friction. They know that when an engine runs, unexpected stuff will happen. Determining the exact cause of the problem can be complicated. Seasoned mechanics often will combine computerized diagnostics with their own knowledge and experience to figure out the issue. It’s just part of the design process. There’s no drama involved. We could learn from that approach.

When stuff happens in life, things get more complex. Friction in human relationships or endeavors is more difficult to understand. Maybe we don’t like drama, but most of us will respond in similar ways. Often, we increase complexity even more by seeking more information and conducting more analyses. That’s not all bad, but it can spiral into levels of complexity, including organizational complexity — more meetings, decision delays, and specialized teams. We add layers of policy and processes intended to address the complexity, but it could make it worse. Essentially, we replace clarity with detail. As a result, activity increases and so does confusion. At the same time, trust decreases and so does effectiveness. It’s hard to stay focused on staying clear and focused when your legs feel like lead weights from trying to pump up that last hill.

Just because we encounter friction doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction or need to abandon the project. We rarely will have the ideal conditions we might wish for. Stuff will happen, so plan for friction. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Working at the Speed of Trust

May 21st, 2015

Your mindset matters when you want to get something done. What’s in your head affects who you decide to engage with, how you work together, and how you progress toward your goals. I’ve been reading lately about the difference between collaboration and organizing for collective impact. The authors said collective impact succeeds only when it uses evidence and builds relationships, because change happens at the speed of trust.

The speed of trust. Isn’t that true? I thought about that a lot this past week as I was out traveling across our state. I’m fortunate to work with so many whom I not only respect, but also trust. When you think about it, we don’t want Iowans just to have an experience with us. We don’t want just to have a relationship with them. We want them to trust us.

From where I sit, trust requires a few things. You all know what I’m talking about — being reliable, honoring promises, and being loyal. A few that don’t get as much attention, but should, are to seek clarity and to be clear. In other words, when an opportunity to be vague arises, don’t take it. Create transparency whenever possible, right wrongs (there is perhaps a whole post I could write about just that), and keep trying to be better.

However, the number one ingredient for building trust is the ability to offer it to others first. My dad firmly believed that any of the important things we want in life (trust, love, respect, happiness, success, etc.), we get only by first giving them to others.

More than 100 years ago, Iowans throughout the state began turning to Iowa State because they trusted their land-grant university. The original extension workers provided farmers and families and 4-H’ers with research-based information that they could apply to their own farms and in their own lives. Extension also extended trust back to Iowans by engaging them in this work, not just as recipients but as co-creators. Together, we create the social experience through which innovations spread. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. You can read “Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

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We Have to Care

May 14th, 2015

A few years ago, I made a commitment to having a healthier lifestyle and began seeking a plan to do so. However, I had trouble staying motivated. I’d give my attention to nearly anything other than any plan I was attempting to follow. You see, I didn’t know exactly what I cared about. Losing weight? Maintaining my health? Managing stress? I followed complicated plans that someone else cared about, because complicated must mean important. However, I wasn’t sure if I was doing these complicated plans correctly. I got bored running. I fiddled with machines at the gym. I’m pretty sure I spent more time reading about how to be healthy than doing something that would make me healthier.

A friend suggested I throw out all the complicated plans and simply move 3 miles or 30 minutes a day. Huh? I was pretty sure this wouldn’t be enough to change anything, but it was simple and measurable, and I figured at the very least I could walk around campus for 30 minutes and call it good. A funny thing happened, though. At first, I did the bare minimum: I walked (OK, I might have ambled or strolled) exactly 30 minutes. No more, no less. But I liked it. It gave me time to think, to breathe fresh air, to notice changes around me. So, I decided to shoot for 3 miles. Sometimes I walked. Sometimes I ran. Sometimes I rode my bike. I even roller-bladed around campus. Before I knew it, I was going out for at least an hour and blowing past 3 miles as a warm-up. Because it was fun. That’s when I realized when it came to my health, what I cared about was having a little island of fun in my day, not more tasks to be done.

To get stuff done, I think it’s important to know what we care about – and what we don’t; to know where the boundaries begin and end. If we’re not sure what we care about, others will have things that can sway us. It can be deceptively easy to move from what we care about, one small step at a time, to what others care about. Eventually we will be far away from the very thing that stirs our passion and gives us purpose. We think it should be easy to stay focused because usually we have some level of motivation about whatever it is. After all, it’s defined by the fact that we care about it. But it’s not that simple. Our energy levels wax and wane. Even invigorating work becomes routine and includes a few boring tasks. I’ve read the inspirational stories of successful individuals who are driven by unlimited passion and energy. And when I feel weary or unmotivated, I might think I’m just not blessed with the same zeal.

It’s easy to do the work when we’re motivated, when everyone agrees, when we’re fairly sure of the outcome. Sometimes we even think the outcome is the pinnacle, rather than appreciating the ongoing (and sometimes dull) process. But I’ve come to understand that people who consistently get things done don’t focus on one event or goal; they commit to the process. They hang in with the daily practice, the small steps, and the 30 minutes – not the outcome. In other words, if we want to be better at anything, we have to care about the process of doing it. We have to care about being someone who does that kind of work, rather than merely thinking about the outcome. Let’s care about our process, our small daily things, our 30 minutes. The results will take care of themselves. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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4 Points about Leadership

May 7th, 2015

It’s the end of the semester and many awards banquets and celebrations are underway, so I’ve been presenting awards to some impressive people and contemplating words of wisdom to share with young leaders. In ISU Extension and Outreach we work to provide Iowans with high-quality, research-based education and remarkable experiences. We aspire to be national leaders in this endeavor. It’s not always an easy task. Recently, we’ve talked about Iowa’s forward-thinking people whose legacy we follow. Forward-thinking people understand a few things about leadership that are worth our attention. I thought you might want to consider a few things I’ve shared in the past few weeks.

1. Disappointment isn’t failure. In the course of leadership, we will be disappointed. Perhaps many times. Here’s an important thing to remember: disappointment is not the same thing as failure. Disappointment is almost always what I call an ego “toe stub.” My ego didn’t like how something went, things didn’t go the way I had it planned out in my head. But I’ve come to learn, once I accept that there may be many ways ahead and let go of the ego, things work out.

2. People will judge. I once read a quote by Abraham Lincoln which said: “I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what’s said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.” That pretty much sums it up. People will judge – whether we are doing the right things, the not quite right things, the innovative things, the things that must be done. Get used to it.

3. It’s OK to be unsure. Not only is it OK – I get nervous around leaders who are never unsure. How could they possibly know? Give me a leader who is still a learner, still asking “what if?” and still experimenting.

4. Go out to meet it. This is the essence of leadership: commitment. Until leaders are committed, there is little reason for people to show more than the minimum level of initiative required. Once leaders demonstrate commitment, then it’s easier for others to step up. Leaders secure commitment through commitment.

All good points to keep in mind as we engage with others, design experiences for those we serve, and as we seek to encourage young leaders. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Ask Beautiful Questions

April 30th, 2015

Earlier today I met with the Community and Economic Development (CED) faculty and staff and the regional directors as they held their joint in-service. One of the things we talked about was how I always know it’s going to be a good conversation when Tim Borich (Program Director, CED, and Associate Dean, College of Design) wanders into my office and begins a conversation with “What if …?” Tim, you see, has mastered the art of asking beautiful questions.

Author Warren Berger says we should ask beautiful questions – the kind that help us shift our reasoning and assist in bringing about change. These questions are ambitious and the mere fact of asking them involves taking action. When we ask a beautiful question, we ask “how.” We ask, “what if.” Engaging with these types of questions makes us think.

Asking beautiful questions in Extension and Outreach has resulted in some amazing answers. When we asked how we could engage Iowa State students with local foods education and potential extension careers, we developed the Rising Star Internship program. When we asked how we could help young livestock producers connect with each other for success in agriculture, we established the Beginning and Young Livestock Producer Network. When we asked how we could reach Latino audiences more effectively, we decided to integrate our Latino youth, family, community, and business development programs. Berger points to a University of Illinois study which found that when trying to motivate yourself, questions work better than statements or commands. Questions apparently help us to begin to act when we are uncertain. But there is an art to shaping a beautiful question. According to Edward Witten, that means “a question that is hard (and interesting) enough that it is worth answering – and easy enough that one can actually answer it.”

How might we create more collaboration? How can we engage more faculty with communities? How can we embed students in real world experiences? How can we help farmers with effective succession planning? Beautiful, ambitious questions can be game-changers and lead to breakthroughs. But you won’t know until you ask. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Warren Berger’s article in Fast Company.

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Innovation and Relationships

April 16th, 2015

Yesterday I participated in a national study of innovation in extension, and I have to say that I ended the day feeling less confident that I understand innovation, its role, and what supports it than I did before. Uh-oh.

It started with the first question I was asked: “How do you define innovation in extension?” I know. That sounds like an easy question until they follow it by asking you to give three examples. Where do you start?

I don’t know how your thought process goes, but how do you talk about innovation in extension in the first place? Do you mean an innovative program? Do you mean an innovation that we helped diffuse to the larger population? Do you mean an innovation in how extension is structured and delivered?

In some ways, answering this question is like being in a house of mirrors. Extension was essentially created as a targeted innovation diffusion structure. The role of extension was to provide the trusted adviser and create the social process through which innovations could spread. I think sometimes people misunderstand the role of extension and think we are just information dissemination, and if that’s the case, then there is good reason to worry with the Internet and other means for accessing information 24/7. People who think this way often believe that important innovations will spread quickly, now that we’ve got the Internet. Some do, such as innovations related to communication technologies and YouTube videos.

However, according to Atul Gawande there is a long list of vital innovations that don’t catch on just by sharing the information. The puzzle is, why? Gawande studied whether innovation diffusion was negatively impacted by economics, technical complexity, and other factors. What Gawande learned is that there is a pattern with stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious and requires effort that may not yield its full impact until much later. In other words, they are “wicked problems” that have complex solutions and require changing social norms. Gawande notes that truly changing norms requires nearly one-on-one, on-site mentoring — which doesn’t sound like much of a solution. Gawande states, “It would require broad mobilization, substantial expense, and perhaps even the development of a new profession.” (Hmmm. Sounds like extension work.)

Gawande, who works in the medical field, continues: “Think about the creation of anesthesiology — it meant doubling the number of doctors in every operation, and we went ahead and did so. To reduce illiteracy, countries, starting with our own, built schools, trained professional teachers, and made education free and compulsory for all children. To improve farming, governments have sent hundreds of thousands of agriculture extension agents to visit farmers across America and every corner of the world and teach them up-to-date methods for increasing their crop yields. Such programs have been extraordinarily effective. They have cut the global illiteracy rate from one in three adults in 1970 to one in six today, and helped give us a Green Revolution that saved more than a billion people from starvation.”

Gawande then goes on to quote one of Iowa State’s own, Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas spread. Rogers wrote, “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.” Media can introduce an idea, but people look to other people they know and trust when they decide whether they will pursue that new idea. Extension — innovation and relationships. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Gawande’s article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/slow-ideas.

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This Is the Work

April 9th, 2015

Early in my career (OK, a really long time ago), I was a hall adviser at Iowa State University. I was responsible for providing support services to students, primarily 800 women who lived in Maple Hall. Our staff had all kinds of plans for programs we wanted to implement and activities to engage students in optimizing their development. Yep. We were a pretty idealistic bunch.

But when you bring 800 people together, things happen. Some of them get sick. Some have really tough break-ups with their boyfriends. Some get engaged. Some lose their parents. Some fail a class. Some get scholarships. Some make poor choices, like the ones who decided to rappel from the top of the hall.

One frustrating and long day, one of my staff said it would be nice if we didn’t have so many distractions so we could just get our work done. But here’s the thing: this is the work. That’s true in ISU Extension and Outreach too. We really are about the people and people change, people have emotions, people have unexpected things happen to them, people have lives. This is the reason Mike Kruzeniski, director of experience design at Twitter, says it is so important to make sure you are thinking about how you want to build your organization while you are designing whatever great things your organization builds.

Kruzeniski says “we all just want to focus on designing and making great things, but building the company is what will support you to do the work you aspire to do … and it takes a long time. When company stuff gets complicated, it’s easy to complain, to point at the people you think are responsible, or to just quit. But it’s your job to help. Your role in a company isn’t to just be the designer of products; your role is to be a designer of that company, to help it become the company that has the ability to make the products you aspire to make. When you joined your company, you probably didn’t think you signed up to help build the company too, but you did. By helping to make your company a better place to work, you make it a better place to design and build things.”

Kruzeniski also says “don’t just think about that one product you need to design in the next three, six, or 12 months. Consider the skills, relationships, and tools that you and your company will need for the next two, five, seven, or 10 years and start working on them now. Don’t just measure yourself by the output of your very next project; Measure yourself by how you’re improving quality over the course of your next 10 projects. Measure yourself by the quality of the projects of your peers. When you see problems, go tackle them, even if nobody told you to. Put it on yourself to make it better, so that your current and future colleagues won’t have to deal with that same problem. Your job is to be the shoulders that the next generation of designers  —  and perhaps your future self  —  at your company will stand on.”

At ISU Extension and Outreach, we all have very busy days conducting needs assessments, developing programs, managing finances, delivering educational programs, managing people, collaborating with key partners — and designing the future Extension and Outreach. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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Stuff We Need to Know

April 2nd, 2015

In ISU Extension and Outreach, we must be in front of transformation, not waiting to react to it. This means realizing there is stuff we need to know.

1. We must know our state and what’s happening in it.
2. We must know our university and its strengths.
3. We must know our people and what they care about.

The lifelong partnerships we build, the learning opportunities we provide, and the experiences we deliver have one over-arching goal – to improve the quality of life in Iowa. We’ve been working toward this goal for some time now. That’s why we had our leadership summit. That’s why we agreed on our fundamental principles. That’s why we started examining our organizational culture.

We’re addressing Iowa’s changing demographics. We’re working to widen our circle of service with urban audiences and increase the diversity of our workforce, partners, and participants. We’re adapting to our new reality, as we deal with complex problems and broaden the role of ISU Extension and Outreach, and as we manage the role technology plays.

Through our land-grant mission we make good on our shared commitment to Iowa, to our people, and to our future. Our land-grant mission compels us to provide high-quality, research-based education. Equally important, our mission also should drive us to deliver the most remarkable experiences that we possibly can. Land-grant universities are called “people’s colleges” for a reason. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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