It Really Is a Wonderful Life

December 19th, 2013

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” – Clarence Oddbody, Angel 2nd Class

Like many of your families, this time of year one of my family’s traditions is to fill the chipped blue popcorn bowl, head to the couch, and watch classic holiday movies. Of course a favorite is the classic of all holiday classics, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You know the story: Clarence the guardian angel shows George Bailey how different his community would be if he had never been born. George learns that his relationships with the people of Bedford Falls are what really matter. Although his life didn’t turn out the way he planned, he realizes he has a wonderful life because of those relationships, and he has touched, and helped, many people. He has lived a life worth living.

Sometimes Extension and Outreach work doesn’t turn out the way we plan, either. But it’s our relationships – among our staff and with our clients and partners – that make what we do worthwhile. That’s why we’re focused on feeding people, keeping them healthy, helping their communities to prosper and thrive, and turning the world over to the next generation better than we found it. I thank each of you for everything you do to carry out the land-grant mission and serve the people of Iowa. Your efforts – small and large – touch and help many people. Especially at this time of year, may all of us remember that despite our challenges, it really is a wonderful life making a difference for Iowans. See you there.

– Cathann


Pondering Signature Issues

December 5th, 2013

To raise the visibility of our work in ISU Extension and Outreach, we started using four signature issues to help communicate the breadth of our programs: Food and the Environment, Health and Well-being, Economic Development, and K-12 Youth Outreach. Capturing the breadth of programming across the state in a short, succinct statement is difficult, but necessary.  I think of our signature issues as shorthand to communicate the benefits that our current and potential clients get by engaging with our programs, services, or ideas. It “boils down” all the complexity of our vast endeavors into something that Iowans can easily grasp and remember.

When Regional Director Bob Dodds leaves Ames and heads home to Region 20, he has a four-hour drive and time to think. So he’s had time to ponder our signature issues — what they are and what they mean. From Bob’s dashboard perspective, no matter how sophisticated the world becomes, or how advanced the technology at our disposal, the focus of Extension and Outreach work always boils down to these four points: We’re feeding people, keeping them healthy, helping their communities to prosper and thrive, and turning the world over to the next generation in better shape than we found it.

I’ve been following Bob’s example when I talk about our signature issues with staff, council members, and partners across the state. I encourage you to do the same. (Bob won’t mind.) It’s an easy way to help Iowans understand Extension and Outreach. To help us increase our visibility, we need communications that focus closely on what our clients really want and value. Iowans want to solve problems, to improve on existing solutions, to have a better life, build a better business or do more, better, faster, and so on. Iowans want to build a better future for our children. We’re using “signature issues” to describe our collective work because it helps others see the specific value ISU Extension and Outreach brings to them. And by doing so, we may grab their attention in such a way that they know, “Yes, that’s right for me.” See you there.

– Cathann

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November 22nd, 2013

DNA is a double helix, two strands that curve beautifully around each other. Both strands are essential to determining an individual’s genetic makeup. Organizations have DNA too, in a sense — basic building blocks that determine what they will be and how they will operate.  In my view, education is central to our Extension and Outreach DNA. Iowans believe in education as a way to solve today’s problems and build toward the future. It’s why there’s a school house on our state quarter: our state is committed to education. Not every state shares this commitment, but it is central to the character of Iowa.

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter calls it Iowa’s shared responsibility. In his recent Des Moines Register opinion piece he said our universities have the responsibility to provide world-class education. State government has a responsibility to financially support the universities. Students and parents have to plan for higher education and the financial obligations that come with it. The Board of Regents has to make sure our public universities remain accessible and affordable for future generations. (And ISU recently was ranked #1 on the A-List.)

In Extension and Outreach, providing access to education is our responsibility. This strand of our DNA connects to an equally important second strand: the belief that we do our work through our diverse and meaningful partnerships. We work in communities, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder with the people who live there, dealing with issues confronting our partners at the local level.  President Rastetter said that we all have to “assume our responsibilities and embrace all efforts to make our good programs great and our great universities exceptional.” But it won’t happen unless we’re willing to make tough decisions and implement change.

When I need to make a decision about allocating resources or strategic planning, or when I’m trying to figure out what’s the best direction for Extension and Outreach going forward, the components of our DNA are always driving decisions. Does a particular program help us work in the local community more effectively? Does it help us deliver high quality educational opportunities to our citizens? I encourage you to ask these questions as you make decisions in your particular role. If you understand the two parts of our DNA, you understand a whole lot about Extension and Outreach and sharing responsibility for education in Iowa. See you there.

– Cathann

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Sneakers and Simplicity

November 7th, 2013

With colder weather creeping in, I’ve switched from riding my bicycle to running on the track in State Gym. I decided I needed a new pair of shoes, since my sneakers (yes, I call them that, even though my children roll their eyes) had seen better days. I stopped at the shoe store and found myself staring at a wall full of fluorescent footwear. Lots of them. Which ones are for running? I asked. The sales people pointed at the wall and began to describe extensive technical and feature information. They pointed out information cards next to some shoes with more details about stabilization and pronation. There were even QR codes that could take me to a mobile version of the brand’s website so I could learn more about the specifications of the DayGlo lime model.

Huh? Um. I allotted around 20 minutes to get in, buy some sneakers, and get out and on my way. I run.  Not very fast. Usually inside. And don’t want my feet or wallet to hurt. What shoe fits that?

A recent Harvard Business Review study looked at what keeps people coming back to a brand and found more than price, more than snazzy accessories, or high tech gizmos it was “decision simplicity” — the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information and confidently and efficiently weigh their options. What consumers want is simplicity.

It made me wonder about the experience people have when they encounter Extension and Outreach. How easy is it to gather and understand information about our programs? If someone has never been part of an Extension and Outreach program before and stumbles across us in person or online, can he or she quickly learn about our programs and how to get involved? How many forms do people have to fill out to participate? How quickly do they get what they need and get on their way? To keep the citizens we currently serve and to reach those we don’t yet serve, we will have to remove obstacles and reduce the effort citizens must expend to engage with us. See you there.

– Cathann

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Scholarship of Impact

October 31st, 2013

You might have seen that Iowa State University joined the Engagement Scholarship Consortium recently. (See the news release.) For those of us working in Extension and Outreach, you might wonder what the big deal is. After all, it sounds like stuff we’ve been doing for nearly a hundred years. You’d be right.

Turns out, not everyone on campus really understands what we do. At times, there is confusion that we just do “service” and that a faculty member sitting on a committee is doing fairly equivalent work. Sometimes people think we are the university’s version of the Red Cross or Department of Public Health.  Throw in the variety of terms such as extension, engagement, outreach … and pretty soon even those of us who have done it for a while might be a little confused.

That’s when it’s helpful to remember our guiding principles. First and foremost, our work is education — not emergency response or care services. To me (and I’m not alone in this) one of the most distinguishing features of our work is that it is mutually beneficial. It’s not simply an expert-based pipeline of information out from campus, but an interactive process. And although those who think of scholarship as only a research study may be surprised, our work is scholarship too — specific methodologies, scope, and sequence that yield the most effective community-based education.

Our scholarship has moved from emphasizing product (articles, etc.) to emphasizing impact. We all can appreciate how complicated isolating our impact can be in the broader context of community.  Education is public good, not just a private good for students. President Leath summed it up well by stating he wants ISU to be the university that best serves its state. See you there.

– Cathann

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A Culture of Innovation

October 11th, 2013

I follow several bloggers, journals, and other sources that often talk about innovation within large and established organizations. The consensus seems to be that if you want to encourage innovation and actually see some success, you have to pay attention to the culture and structure of the organization. I find this compelling because I am a firm believer that Extension was created to transmit and communicate innovation to our citizens.

Business leader and author Fred Hassan described how “internal tribalism” was hurting a company, and I wondered how that might apply to Extension and Outreach. We have many tribes within Extension and Outreach and often that’s a good thing, but sometimes it limits us. We’ve had a somewhat disjointed leadership structure in the past, and some tough challenges — which may have hindered our ability to align faculty and staff toward our common purpose. My informal organizational survey this summer suggested we have issues with messages being transmitted across the communication barriers of our internal tribes.

Innovation and communication (or the lack thereof) are part of an organization’s culture. That’s why our annual conference next March will focus on promoting an organizational culture committed to excellence and responsiveness to change. In a recent study, researchers identified four key pieces to fostering an innovation culture:

1. Inspire curiosity
2. Challenge current perspectives
3. Create freedom
4. Drive discipline

It seems to me that we need to create more opportunities for people to move from just passion for their unique programs to passion with accountability and an appreciation for the principles of our larger organization. Part of what I’ve seen in our organizational culture is a tendency for some of us to “delegate up” — we push tough decisions to our supervisors, while we embrace our program and passionately fight for the status quo. That prevents us from having to take responsibility or put ourselves at risk. However, the very nature of innovation IS risk. Innovation means applying a new idea or the novel combination of ideas or processes in ways that lead to impact. Innovation means doing something different, not merely doing the same thing better. See you there.

– Cathann

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Plan for Lightning

September 27th, 2013

Thunderstorms can be beautiful, unless the lightning hits your house. That’s why we have lightning rods. Lightning rods don’t prevent lightning. They provide a path to safely pass currents to the ground. Perhaps we also can plan for the figurative lightning strikes in our lives. In other words, plan for chaos. Plan for frustration. Plan for resistance. Expect your fridge might break down during your most stressful week at work. Don’t be surprised when the deadline for the grant is announced late when key staff members are out of town. Plan for the possibility that your daughter will tell you at 10 p.m. she needs brownies for homeroom in the morning.

Plan for those lightning strikes and build a personal lightning protection system. Stash brownie mixes in your pantry. Keep your ideas for grant proposals in a folder, ready to be used. Eat the fudge ripple ice cream in the freezer so it doesn’t melt.  And learn to let go. Learn to let it pass through you.

Essentially, to manage frustration is to accept reality.  I read somewhere that it’s OK to swish your feet in the waters of self-pity, but don’t dive in. Refocus yourself and accept that sometimes things don’t go according to plan.  I’d also recommend learning to be fully present where you are.  For example, if you sit through meetings checking email, you’re not contributing to the task at hand. If you’re focused on tomorrow’s big presentation, you could be missing great dinner conversations with your family.

Lastly, sometimes it’s not only that things don’t go according to plan, but sometimes I just can’t get the brownies made.  So, it’s probably good to learn to forgive yourself. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

See you there.

– Cathann


Understanding the Elephant

September 19th, 2013

This summer, I asked a number of our Extension and Outreach colleagues to answer a few questions:

  • What kind of organization do we want to be?
  • What do you think is our organization’s purpose?
  • What do we aspire to bring to the world?
  • What kind of a culture do you think we need within Extension and Outreach to accomplish that?
  • What will the organization look, feel, and sound like if we are embodying that mission and culture?
  • How should we measure success?

Yes, I know. Just a few light questions for a summer afternoon. However, they had a lot to say – a couple even included reading assignments for me. Extension people are always focused on helping others learn.

Overall they expressed a good amount of excitement about the future. However, I had several “aha” moments as I read their responses. They voiced a lot of agreement about who we are and what we do. That’s good news.  But they also noted tensions as we contemplate the future: trust vs. risk in the organization, the delicate balance of our research-base with local needs, delivering information vs. providing education, responding vs. being proactive, and being one-way information providers vs. working in partnership. Several comments addressed communications as well as our organizational complexity. I’ll be sharing more of their insights in future blogs and want to thank each of them for taking the time to thoughtfully respond.

Their responses reminded me of the fable about the blind men and the elephant. Together they all come upon an elephant, but each person encounters only one part. One person touches the trunk, another the tail, a tusk, a leg, and so on. Each person experiences only a fraction of the elephant with no concept of the entire animal. But as they share what they learned, they come to understand that the elephant is the collection of their experiences.

I’ve heard feedback that a few people still are confused about our vision and unclear where we are headed, so this year I plan to work harder to communicate about the kind of organization we want to be and the vision that we articulated at our Leadership Summit. Our renewed emphasis in professional development will give us an opportunity to consider our organizational culture and how we fulfill our vision. I also intend to stay focused on securing more resources, working with our leadership team to strategically address gaps, strengthening our evaluation processes and metrics so we can better report our impacts, and listening closely to our partners and constituents.

Seeing the “whole elephant” can be complicated in a complex organization such as ISU Extension and Outreach. But if we are willing to have patience, focus, and listen to each other, we will come to a clear understanding together. See you there.

– Cathann

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Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Two

August 29th, 2013

If you’re familiar with Spaghetti Westerns, then you’ve probably heard of the old Clint Eastwood movie, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” No matter what you think of the movie, you must admit it has a great title. The title might even be better known than the movie. As I write this, I can even hear that theme song in my head, although I can’t recall much about the movie itself. 

There’s a variation on that title that’s popular as well — “The Good, the Fast, and the Cheap.” It’s been called a marketing rubric, a project management rule, even the designer’s holy triangle. It goes like this:

People want things good, fast, and cheap. But unfortunately, you can have only two of the three.
• Good (or high quality) and fast isn’t cheap.
• Fast and cheap isn’t high quality.
• High quality and cheap takes time.

The “good, fast, and cheap” mantra is a sign of the complexity that is present in any project — or any educational program. Of the three, we should aim for the good — high quality in our educational programs and materials — and understand that getting it will either take time or cost money. Then we need to make the appropriate commitment. See you there.

– Cathann


Focus, Filter, and Forget

August 15th, 2013

My son Payden was home from college this summer, taking some courses online and helping out around the house. When he’s home, my favorite part is that he cooks, as in really good dinners. My not-so-favorite part is that he cleans with far less enthusiasm than he has for cooking.  I suspect it may be to get his mother to do it, but loading the dishwasher is a complex challenge he has yet to master. So he crowds in as many dirty dishes as he possibly can fit inside and still be able to close the door. However, when dishes and glasses and pots and pans are jammed together that tightly, nothing gets very clean. An overloaded dishwasher defeats the purpose.

Loading a home dishwasher may be a low-level example, but dealing with complex issues within complex systems is tough. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber call these “wicked” problems and define them as “predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved – and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble.”  If you imagine ISU Extension and Outreach as a really big dishwasher, do we sometimes try to fill it too full, to do too much — so we aren’t as effective as we could be? How do you get things done in a complex organization like ours, dealing with complex issues?

First, focus. To begin breaking down complexity, focus on your purpose. Emphasize the principles and values around how Extension and Outreach operates. Make sure people understand their roles and purpose; then they can innovate because they have context. If something is high value and easy — that’s an easy win – do it.  If some activity is high value and complex, it will likely take more time and effort, and that’s probably where we should focus. 

Next, filter. Some problems become unfathomable when we set short deadlines for finding a solution. Some problems take decades to resolve. Start by setting realistic time frames. We don’t have to tackle the whole problem all at once. If something is low value to our organization, and low complexity, it can probably move down the priority list. Finally, get comfortable forgetting some things. If we already know that something is so complex it will never be solved, AND it has low value to our organization, maybe it’s time to direct our attention elsewhere.

The most important quality in confronting complexity is persistence and focus. It’s about being comfortable with using our values and purpose to guide our work. See you there.

– Cathann

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