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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Uncharted Territory

October 23rd, 2014

If you’ve ever watched Star Trek in any of its television or movie versions, then you know the captain and crew had one key mission: to boldly go where no one had gone before. That also holds true for Extension and Outreach. We are bound by our charter to explore what’s out there – to engage and discover – without knowing if we have the research, ideas, answers, or resources to fully address a particular need or issue. This has always been the case with Extension and Outreach. But now, for some reason, we think there should be a blueprint for the future, and if we just crunched the data, got the grant, or hired the right team, everything would go smoothly. However, we can’t control the experience of Extension and Outreach any more than we can control the experience of democracy. It’s full of interruptions, distractions, red herrings, serendipity, and glorious messiness.

The essence of Extension and Outreach is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it’s effective with a lot of participation from our clients and partners, and sometimes not as much as we had hoped. Trying to tie up the loose ends or clinging to what worked well in the past would surely kill Extension and Outreach, because those types of approaches reject the basic experience of extension work, which exists in the ongoing interaction of data, ideas, and people.

What I would offer is to embrace the experience. Thinking we can find the one solution for the future or that we can maintain exactly as we were in the past is futile. Just as our early educational pioneers did more than 100 years ago, we must step into the uncharted territory and accept the tension of creating as we go, co-creating with others, even those whose voices make us uncomfortable or rankle us. If we accept the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of Extension and Outreach, we increase our capacity to be effective, to evolve, to develop opportunities, and to fully express the vision and mission first articulated by our pioneers.  Go boldly. See you there.

– Cathann

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Let’s Celebrate

September 26th, 2014

Sometimes, it’s time to assess the situation and plan. Sometimes, it’s time to dig deeper and try harder. This past week, however, it was time to celebrate. I had the privilege of representing all of us in Extension and Outreach as we celebrated the achievements of some dedicated people at the University Awards Ceremony.  These awards recognize excellence, but more importantly, they also celebrate the role Extension faculty and staff play in engaging the resources of our institution with our citizens.

Angela Rieck-Hinz, as an Extension Program Specialist for Agriculture and Natural Resources, has coordinated statewide training programs for over 3,000 manure applicators. Her leadership style fosters teamwork and collaboration on environmental stewardship programming across all levels within Extension, and soil health and water quality stakeholders. (Angela now serves as an Extension and Outreach field agronomist.)

Daniel Loy, Professor of Animal Science and Director of the Iowa Beef Center, was recognized for pioneering the use of microcomputers in data management for cattle feeding operations. He was also instrumental in the transition by beef producers to cattle diets that include corn co-products.

Darin Madson, Assistant Professor of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine, is internationally renowned for his diagnostic medicine skills and outreach efforts. The discoveries made in his research have had a major impact on developing new approaches for assurance of the health and well-being of Iowa’s $12.5 billion animal agriculture industry.

And Mary Beth Kaufman, Human Sciences Extension and Outreach Specialist in Family Finance, is on the cutting edge of emerging issues such as flood recovery, mental health, and poverty reduction.  A nominator called Ms. Kaufman a “gifted teacher,” and says her “presentations at educator and youth conferences represent Extension and Outreach at its best — grounded in research and focused on the learner.”

Just four people. Doing their jobs. I’m pretty proud of them and encourage you to join me in congratulating and thanking them. But here’s what makes me proudest – I know that in addition to these four, their 1,000 ISU Extension and Outreach colleagues across the state all have stories like Angie’s and Darin’s and Mary Beth’s, and Dan’s. All making a difference for Iowans. Every day. Congratulations. Thank you. See you there.

– Cathann

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Strength to Your Sword Arms

September 18th, 2014

Earlier in my career, I had the good fortune to work with a mentor who had a long and distinguished extension career. He frequently reminded me that our work is a social enterprise, meaning we seek to achieve our educational goals through social, cultural, community, economic, or environmental outcomes. An equally important component of social enterprise is the involvement of the marginalized, thus creating capacity and self-sufficiency for individuals, and impacting their communities.

I was reminded of this the other night, as our north central region leadership gathered in Fargo, ND, and heard a recounting of our history leading up to the passage of the Smith-Lever Act. I was struck by the energetic personalities and the passion of ideas that shaped our early history. I’m also impressed that they persisted and didn’t get mired in the “what” and “how” and forget to turn it into action. As part of our discussions, there was some reflection on the role Extension has had in supporting our democracy. I perked up at that point, and I hope you do as well, because as we’ve rolled along for 100 and some years, we may sometimes get comfortable and forget that our work isn’t just for those who already know us and love our programs — it’s about trying to be in the shoes of any of our citizens and trying to engage them with the resources of our university.

This is where leadership comes into play; not just any leadership, but transformational leadership – the kind of stuff that moves a collection of ideas to significance. This type of leadership is hard. It is partly fueled by the “what” and “how,” but there’s the ingredient that kicks leadership up, that goes beyond its single components: and that’s the “why.”

My mentor used to remind me of this concept and would point out that the why was truly our strength in Extension – our sword arm, if you will. The why is what unites all of us. It’s what we all found so easy to agree upon at our Leadership Summit and again at this year’s annual conference.  (Take another look at the annual conference report.) There is ample evidence demonstrating that all it takes is the joint effort of a group of passionate people to create momentum for the future. Strength to your sword arms. See you there.

– Cathann

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Today Is September 11

September 11th, 2014

A day we will never forget. As someone who worked in the Pentagon and lived in New York, I find myself reflecting on where I was and how those events shaped our perceptions of safety, community, and hope.

For me, what I choose to remember from that day is how many of us reached out for each other. On the Cornell University campus, we gathered and as a community, we affirmed an African greeting, which translated means –  I am here –recognizing our connections to each other and our unity.

Much has been written about September 11, but whatever our networks, our communities, our families – may we remember their importance, may we recognize our connections, and may we hold on to our hope.  I am here.

– Cathann

Weaker for the Kindness

September 4th, 2014

Well, campus is full again with students and I noted parents hovering around some of them. You’ve probably heard the term “helicopter parent” used for parents who watch over their child’s every move, guiding everything they do and protecting them from all potential dangers. I have a confession to make. When I was a kid, I played on the monkey bars, I rode my bike without a helmet, and my softball team not only didn’t win, we didn’t get stickers for showing up. And yes, it’s true – my group of friends and I trick-or-treated without supervision on the streets of Kalona.

It’s not that our world became much more dangerous in the last 30 years, but we’ve become more aware of the dangers, which resulted in fears about letting children become independent. Here’s the thing: these parents mean well – they want what’s best for their children – but they may be doing more harm than good. My grandmother used to say that doing too much for other people and not letting them learn to do things on their own was ensuring they would be weaker for the kindness.

I read a Forbes article describing parenting behaviors that keep children from becoming leaders. The author referenced Dr. Tim Elmore, an expert on developing emerging leaders. Elmore says children will have a hard time becoming leaders if we don’t let them experience risk or if we rescue them too quickly. He says kids can’t learn to lead if we rave about them too easily or reward them regardless of their performance, if we let our own guilt get in the way, or if we don’t share our own mistakes. If our kids are intelligent or gifted, we may assume they also are mature. But most of all, if we don’t act as the example, who will our kids follow?

I find myself wondering whether these concepts extend to Extension and Outreach as well. Do we hover like helicopter parents, trying to save each other, our partners, and our clients from risk, or do we help others take calculated risks? Do we work through frustrations or try to simply minimize them? Are we willing to experiment, to learn from and share our mistakes, to be the example we want others to follow? Do we allow others to grow out of their comfort zones? Essentially, if we treat them as fragile, our partnerships and staff become fragile. If we encourage resilience and reward perseverance, we just might get it. See you there.

– Cathann

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The Real Golden Age

July 10th, 2014

If you’ve been around Extension and Outreach for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard someone refer to the past as if it were the “Golden Age of Extension.”   I know ever since I was a 4-H Educator in Benton and Tama counties, I’ve had this impression that once upon a time extension was characterized by peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During that time, we assume working in extension was easy and wonderful, with plenty of resources, and the unflagging appreciation of the public. But when was that, exactly? Was it a hundred years ago as extension began? When early extension pioneers made their rounds by horse and buggy with little value placed on a university which few citizens understood? Given the struggles those educators had just communicating, not to mention encouraging adoption of research-based techniques – I wonder. Maybe it was in the 1930s — the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? Maybe not. How about the 1940s and 1950s — after all, isn’t that when Norman Rockwell painted that iconic painting of the County Agent? Oh, wait — with the recovery following World War II? Hmmmm.

I do believe there is a golden age of Extension — it is before us, right now. At no other time have we had the resources and technology at our disposal, the ease of communication and networking, or the recognition of the importance of access to the educational resources of our university.

Think about it: Our faculty and staff are about 1,000 strong, working with families and youth, farmers and agribusiness professionals, and businesses and communities all across the state. Each year nearly 1 million people directly benefit from our educational programs. We’re communicating with each other, our partners, and our clients face-to-face, as well as using computers, iPads, and smart phones. We can videoconference, teleconference, or still meet for coffee at the Ivy Bake Shoppe. Last year Iowans connected virtually with us through more than 1.5 million website visits and downloads of educational materials and courses. Can you imagine how our early educators would marvel at our technology and envy the resources we have in our program portfolio?

We must continue to build on this work, to widen the circle of our reach throughout the state, to live up to the legacy and the dreams of those extension educators who preceded us. Every dollar that Iowans invest in Extension and Outreach pays back dividends — when entrepreneurs start businesses, families make healthy choices, youth become leaders for the future, and communities become better places to live. We are lucky enough to be stewards of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach when a golden age is upon us. See you there.

– Cathann

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The Secret Sauce

June 26th, 2014

Kelsy Reynaga is a junior at Iowa State, recently selected to be a national Project YES! (Youth Extension Service) Intern, a program I helped start at the Department of Defense. While I’m proud of being there at its beginning, I’m even prouder that the talented educators I turned it over to have created an educational experience that greatly benefits the interns, the military families, and extension. Kelsy wrote me recently about starting this new internship and had a number of tough questions she wanted to ask, most without easy answers. Since Kelsy will likely expect some wisdom when we meet, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on her questions.

What drives me? As I begin my fourth year as vice president for Extension and Outreach at Iowa State University, I find our work of creating access to education to be incredibly meaningful. I feel an obligation to extension’s early educational pioneers to rise to their level and create educational opportunities and solutions for the future. I am regularly delighted by the dedication, creativity, and talent of the people I get to work with, and I want to leave things better than I found them.

Is this the path I envisioned for my future? Um. No. I’m not good enough at predicting the future, or understanding what opportunities might come up. Instead, I’ve learned to be ready and open and willing to leap.

So, is it possible to accomplish everything you want to do? Not alone. Not in a direct line. Not in the way you thought it would happen. Not as quickly as you might hope. Accomplishing things really depends on understanding the fundamental conditions that support accomplishment.  At the most basic level, there are only a few things one needs for accomplishment to thrive: Vision. Resources. An action plan. But the real secret sauce to getting things done is nurturing talented colleagues, making it easier for them to do their work, and recognizing and rewarding their efforts. In other words, our ability to strengthen Extension and Outreach lies in improving the conditions that shape our organizational culture.

As I thought about what to say to Kelsy, I realized I don’t really think so much about “accomplishing stuff” anymore — instead, I think about trying to create the conditions for good things to happen. See you there.

– Cathann

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