It’s Still about People

As our nation has been commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday and numerous events this month, 41 people from across all of ISU Extension and Outreach gathered together to begin developing a diversity and inclusion strategic plan to guide our work in building a strong Iowa. On behalf of our whole system, I expressed my appreciation to these colleagues for their willingness to take on this challenge and provide this much needed leadership.

Maybe you’ve heard me say this before, but there’s a reason we do what we do in ISU Extension and Outreach. We want a strong Iowa. That’s why we partner with the people of Iowa and harness the resources of our university. We want all communities and farmers to thrive. We want all families and children to be healthy. And eventually we want to turn the world over to everyone in the next generation better than we found it. We want to best serve Iowans, no matter their location or need.

Our legacy in Iowa is forward-thinking people – people ahead of their time, people determined to make life better for others, people who want to make a difference. Within ISU Extension and Outreach, we also are committed to creating an environment where everyone feels welcome, respected, and safe. So we must constantly review, evaluate, and improve our practices and our processes. And we must remove any barriers that may get in the way.

We’ve asked our diversity and inclusion strategic planning team to focus on the next three years. They are thinking about how we can embody diversity and inclusion in our programs, practices, and people. They also are considering how to help faculty and staff see that their individual actions contribute to our collective effort. Although the team is leading the strategic planning effort, we all need to thoughtfully address these issues.

Extension and Outreach is a 99-county campus. We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate how diverse cultures can work in partnership to solve today’s problems and prepare for the future. Our work isn’t just about creating access to education, our work is about people. See you there.

– Cathann

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

Do Things Which Count

I recently learned some interesting extension history from my friend and fellow extension director over in Kansas, Daryl Bucholz. He asked me if our regional director Alan Ladd had ever shared the story of the re-discovery of The Extension Worker’s Code after years of it being somewhat forgotten.

The Extension Worker’s Code, Extension Bulletin No. 33, was published by the Division of College Extension at Kansas State Agricultural College in February 1922, and there’s a great deal of wisdom packed into the booklet’s 20 pocket-sized pages. Author T.J. Talbert covered everything from basic decorum – arriving promptly, dressing appropriately, and not smoking on the job – to building relationships and reaching as many people as possible with research-based educational programs.

Daryl shared that a doctor and his son were restoring their old stone house on the west side of Manhattan and up in the attic found a stash of extension publications, including The Extension Worker’s Code. The doctor knew Alan and presented him with the treasures. When Alan gave a program on the principles in the booklet, Daryl told him that they needed to reprint the publication and get it back into circulation to remind everyone of these important principles of extension work. Many of his colleagues know that Daryl carries this small booklet with him, so I asked him what the code means to him.

“With all the changes that have taken place in technology, transportation, communication over the past 100 years, human connection and relationships remain constant,” Daryl replied. “To become a trusted source. Also, the principles of planning, implementing, evaluating, and reporting were all cited in this 1922 publication! It carries such a great message of extension’s foundational principles, and is a simple, fun read. I carry it in my computer bag all the time. I present a copy of it to our new employees, and tell them I expect they will read it!”

At one time all the USDA CSREES workforce was provided a copy. When Rajiv Shah was REE under-secretary and chief scientist, he carried copies with him when travelling the world. Daryl learned of that when he received a call from Dennis Kopp, USDA – CSREES, asking if they could send more copies because Dr. Shah had given his last copy to a minister of agriculture in an African nation as they were talking about taking the research to the people and the need for extension.

Daryl said he finds it useful to reference with people asking about “the why or how of extension.” Much has changed, but many foundational elements of our ability to know and serve the people have not changed, and T.J. Talbert captured those principles so well in his description of how to be successful as an extension professional. It’s a great reminder and refresher from time to time, simply thumbing through the topical headings and then reading a paragraph or two.

While there are great sections throughout, Daryl and I recommend our favorite sections which start on page 15: Have a Vision, Keep Your Eye on the Big Things, Do the Things Which Will Count, and Finish What You Start. Great advice for all extension professionals in being successful in our work. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. The Extension Worker’s Code is available online from K-State Research and Extension.

Big Things — and Dents in the Universe

As another year gets underway, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to engage with Iowans and I’ve thought a lot about what ISU Extension and Outreach has done for more than 100 years. We’ve had some pretty impressive accomplishments: the response and education at the time of the Farm Crisis, the technology transfer of food preservation and hybrid seed, even our response earlier this year to the Avian Influenza outbreak, including our focus on the human side of it.

But not everything we do has to be big to be worthwhile. Is it not sometimes a good thing to take some small part of people’s lives and make it a little better? Not to disrupt anything, or dramatically change it, not to raise millions of dollars, not to have droves of people demanding it — but just to look around our small part of the world and try to make it a little better, try to hand it over to the next generation a little better than we found it.

However, making things a little bit better can be a hard sell. According to David Heinemeier Hansson, the founder of the software company Basecamp, people these days aren’t content just to put their “dent in the universe.” Instead, they want to own the universe and capture their customers. But for those of us in ISU Extension and Outreach, is that what we really want? What is success in community-based education, for dedicated extension professionals?

We don’t need plans to corner the market, because we have something far better than that — our commitment to excellence, access, community, and engagement. That’s what spurs us to do big things in ISU Extension and Outreach, tackling the issues facing our state and responding in times of crisis. It also moves us to make our part of the world a little bit better. This combination of big things and dents in the universe is how we build a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

What We All Want

This time of year many of us are contemplating “wish lists” as we approach the holidays. Maybe someone you know has the latest Star Wars light saber on his or her list. Or an Alex and Ani bracelet. Even though my children are mostly grown (Wren’s a senior — how did that happen?), they still like putting together their lists of what they want. I’ve noted that the older they get, the more expensive the items on their lists seem to get, too. For several years, besides the things they want, my children also have talked about what they hope for the coming year, their wishes about doing well at college, or managing the challenges that come with growing up.

That got me thinking about what we want and hope for in ISU Extension and Outreach. Every year more than a million people directly benefit from our programs. That translates to about 1 in 3 Iowans. But it’s more likely we impact everyone in the state in some way. Do you eat in restaurants? We train foodservice workers in safe food handling practices. Do you want clean water? Iowa State helped develop the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and engages Iowans in this science and technology-based approach to improving Iowa waterways. Do you want to protect monarch butterflies? We’re part of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, working to enhance butterfly habitat in rural and urban areas of our state.

Our work is for the public good. We do the work that needs to be done, and our communities and families depend upon us. That’s why we serve Iowans every day. To celebrate that idea, I invited a few young Iowans to join me in creating this year’s video. It was a fun morning and I hope you enjoy what we did. These children and so many others like them across our state are the reason we do what we do every day in ISU Extension and Outreach. We’re working together to build a strong Iowa for their future. As we look forward to a new year, ISU Extension and Outreach will continue our commitment to harnessing the resources of our university for communities and farmers to thrive, for families and children to be healthy, and eventually to turn the world over to the next generation better than we found it. Because what we all want is a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Caring for the Commons

During my teen years on a farm in southeast Iowa, my summer job was to move our flock of about 500 sheep from pasture to pasture at the appropriate times. Some people would have called me a shepherd, but I called myself a pasture steward, because my family had taught me that before you could be a shepherd you had to have a healthy pasture. I didn’t just regulate how long the sheep stayed on one patch. I worked long and often hot days cutting down bull thistle and nettles, fighting back multiflora rose, repairing fence, reseeding sections, and studying drainage and grazing patterns. I paid attention to weather forecasts and I spent hours walking throughout the pastures to the point that I knew the fine detail of each one’s condition and potential.

Today my view is a lot better than the backsides of 500 sheep; but the work, well, it’s kind of the same. Only instead of taking care of a pasture, together we are caring about the things we share in common, which build a strong Iowa.

For any community – virtual, social, or physical – to thrive, there must be those who care for the things we hold in common, but for which none of us has actual individual responsibility. Frances Moore Lappé put it this way: “How do we protect, not what we own individually, but those indivisible goods we inherit, share, and yearn to pass on unharmed or enriched to our children?” This idea is well documented in environmental issues, but no less important in other community assets. Caring for the commons is an act of individual stewardship (long-term care for a resource for the benefit of oneself and others, including the resource itself). Caring for the commons means more than just regulating. We must be caretakers in a system, nurturing cooperation in society and sharing goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come.

Within environmental stewardship, the notion has even generated a fable, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out that if each individual attempts to take more than his or her share by even a small amount, the consequences can be devastating. Hardin said education could counteract our natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but with each new generation the basis for this knowledge must be constantly refreshed. In ISU Extension and Outreach, we are the stewards of this engagement mission. That’s how we care for the commons. Our land grant mission is our legacy – offering opportunity, providing access, and sharing knowledge with all. See you there.

— Cathann

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

The “Doing” Matters

Right before Thanksgiving, I attended the national meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. It’s a stellar crowd with presidents, provosts, and other education leaders, and the discussions usually are interesting and thought-provoking. One of our keynotes was provided by Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, and former Secretary of Homeland Security and Governor of Arizona.

President Napolitano talked about how students – and others seeking education – don’t just want information. They are seeking skills to turn education into opportunities to make a difference in the world. She challenged us as educators to think about how to prepare those we educate for the “giving back that makes life meaningful.” She encouraged us to consider ways to make our educational classes and programs living labs to test ideas within communities.

Napolitano suggested we regularly ask, “What do we want our society to be and how can the university help us meet our aspirations?” It’s a good question and clearly involves ISU Extension and Outreach. Napolitano believes that the greatest hope for a resilient and dynamic society is the full engagement of the public university with its communities.

She ended her speech by quoting Kurt Vonnegut, “To be is to do.” She also pointed out that the “doing” matters. She said we needed to realize that not all cost is waste at public universities; we’re making investments in opportunity. She urged us to keep our universities strongly connected to our communities. Then she ended with a powerful thought: “Hope is the future we deliver.” See you there.

— Cathann

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

A Gift through Time

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.

Becoming Less Wrong

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

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.

Strong Iowa

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.