Full Brains on Continuous Beta

July 11th, 2013

One of my favorite Gary Larson Far Side cartoons features a classroom full of adult students. A student with a rather small head raises his hand and asks the teacher, “May I be excused? My brain is full.”  (Just Google “gary larson brain is full images” to see the cartoon.)

Perhaps you felt like that student after reviewing the learning objects, meeting with your team, and participating in the synchronous part of our annual conference. I’m guessing Extension IT had a headache from the technical difficulties we encountered with Ann Adrian’s keynote. (Her recorded presentation, script, and slides can now be found on the conference website.)

In her keynote, Ann asks us if we are ready to perform, produce, learn, connect, communicate, and make a difference in a “continuous beta environment.” The term comes from software development. Beta software is usable, but not completely tested and finalized. All the bugs or kinks haven’t been figured out yet. The advantage of operating in continuous beta is that you can change quickly, allowing for continued development.

Ann acknowledges that continuous beta isn’t appropriate for mission critical systems. However, it may make sense for some of our work in Extension and Outreach. We’re trying to make a difference while working in a complex environment — with information coming at us quickly and profusely from almost limitless sources. A system that operates in continuous beta is agile and better able to listen and assess needs in new ways, delve into multifaceted problems, and try solutions to discover what works.

As our very full brains absorb all the information presented during annual conference, how will we use what we’ve learned? When we think in terms of continuous beta, improving our ability to anticipate and adapt to change isn’t as overwhelming. We can try new applications of technology to improve communication and programming, and to enhance how we address our signature issues. We can learn together to improve ourselves, our teams, and our organization. See you there.

– Cathann

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Communication Breakdowns

June 20th, 2013

As I’ve said before, my children are now past the children stage and really in the older teen or youngish adult stage. Periodically, we actually speak in person to each other, which usually consists of me asking questions and them grunting responses or staring blankly at me. However, most of our communications these days are by text. My children can text at the rate of about six words per second and, well, I can’t. As a result, sometimes our text conversations are a bit one-sided, like this:

Daughter: Can I go to Trina’s house?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: You there?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Yes, you’re there, or yes, I can go to Trina’s house?

Daughter: Mom?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Ok. Byeeeeeee.

After one conversation when I unwittingly gave permission for my daughter to dye her hair purple, I immediately called her phone number to clarify. No answer. Seriously? She just texted and now was far enough from her phone that she couldn’t hear it ringing? When I finally tracked her down, her response was, “Oh, I thought we were done communicating.”

This makes me ponder how, with all our technology, real communication can be tricky at times — especially if you’re in a situation where you need to address difficult topics or discuss hard-to-grasp ideas. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I guess he knew my daughter.

For this year’s virtual annual conference, a whole track of learning objects about communications was compiled, ranging from creating social media communities to understanding organizational communication and keeping communication open and organized. If you didn’t get a chance to view these learning objects, the conference site is still open and available as an ongoing resource. As for the purple hair, I’ll save that story for a future blog on choosing your battles. See you there.

– Cathann

Multitasking or Better Choosing?

May 23rd, 2013

Talking on your cell phone, listening to a podcast, viewing a report on your e-reader … all while careening down the highway at top speed: Have you ever taken multitasking to this level? I hope not, because it’s not productive and it’s potentially disastrous. This is an extreme example, but if you really think you can multitask and do lots of things well, think again.

Research has shown there are perils to multitasking that we may not realize. It hampers creativity — creative thinking decreases significantly when people have highly fragmented days with many activities, meetings, discussions, and so on. It raises anxiety — in lab settings, researchers found subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones. A Reuter’s survey found two-thirds of respondents reported that multitasking decreased their job satisfaction. It slows us down, too. Multitasking participants completing tasks took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors compared with those who completed one task at a time. Perhaps multitasking is merely procrastination in disguise.

So why do we do it? Well, multitasking can be addicting. Research shows it spikes dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Every type of reward that has been studied increases levels of dopamine. But is a dopamine rush worth the costs in quality, time, stress, and job satisfaction?

For some basic tasks, it’s probably easy to do a couple in parallel, because they are easy. But it’s probably wise to recognize that some tasks require our full attention. We need to get better about multitasking where it makes sense, switching from one task to another when we have to, and focusing on one thing as much as possible for the best results. See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. I spoke on this topic during my presentation, “Working in a Complex Organization,”  at the P&S Council Professional Development Conference, April 2013.

Stanford: Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows
NPR: Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again
The New Atlantis: The Myth of Multitasking
American Psychological Association: Multitasking — Switching costs
Harvard Business Review: How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking
Workplace Psychology: Multitasking Doesn’t Work
Psychology Today: Technology — Myth of Multitasking


A Few Essential Ingredients

May 9th, 2013

If you are on a campus this time of year, you start thinking about graduation — all the ceremonies, the pomp, the proud and happy parents. In sitting through commencement ceremonies, I’ve noticed that a lot of advice is freely dispensed. The advice usually is about being bold, accepting change, and going forth to do good things. I always like hearing that advice. It’s a fitting message, because I believe education is all about helping us to take risks and succeed.

Part of the objective of education is to impart facts and knowledge. But our world is changing so rapidly that the set of facts we can learn today will not be enough. Our greatest challenge is to develop skills to enlarge upon that small set of facts; to learn how to think and reason so that in the future we can easily add to our knowledge base. All of us will encounter situations that our knowledge may not directly prepare us to handle. Without the ability to find the answers, to think through to a unique and different solution, it will be difficult to succeed.

A wonderful quote by Eric Hoffer speaks to this: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

I believe Extension and Outreach creates capacity and opportunity for citizens to be learners. I believe we attempt to cultivate a few essential ingredients in ourselves and those around us: an open mind and a lifelong desire to learn and grow, a thirst for accomplishment that is not fueled by greed or ego, a curiosity about the world, and a desire to make a difference. See you there.

– Cathann

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Make It Rain

April 25th, 2013

Although we received some rain (and snow!) in the past few weeks, we will need more as we head into the growing season. I recently happened upon a conversation in a café in Independence about needing “rainmakers.” On my way back home, I began thinking about the power of belief in getting things done. Rainmakers aren’t just those who create rain; the term also refers to people known for achieving excellent results in a profession.

Adept faculty and staff, council members, and volunteers are crucial for success in ISU Extension and Outreach. Washington State University Extension, which also is moving toward a university-wide extension system, has focused on this concept of being a rainmaker. At Washington State, a rainmaker is someone who through his or her skills and abilities can bring people and resources together to meet the challenges facing extension now and in the future. Rainmakers are continual learners. They have an area of expertise, but also must be entrepreneurial and capable of working in multidisciplinary teams. They must be competent in establishing partnerships, able to empower constituents, and adept in developing relevant educational programs. Subject matter specialization is desirable, but “big picture” thinking is required.

Washington State even has published an extension rainmaker job description (http://ext.wsu.edu/careers/Rainmaker.pdf). Potential rainmakers must have appropriate academic degrees, but most of the job description lists the skills, abilities, and attitudes that rainmaking requires. However, rainmaking can be learned. These attributes can be gained through professional development.

ISU Extension and Outreach encourages and supports professional development and growth in faculty, staff, council members, and volunteers, because we seek to be a dynamic organization — and to become the university that best serves its state. As you plan for your professional development, think about what skills you can build upon so you can make a difference for Iowans. Let’s make it rain. See you there.

– Cathann

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Together We Reach New Heights

April 11th, 2013

“Together you have set a new record. With your strong wings and determination, mighty Eagle, and with your dreaming and your quick brain, little Wren, you have flown to a height never reached by any bird before.”
— The Eagle and the Wren, by Jane Goodall

About a dozen years ago, chimpanzee authority Jane Goodall and illustrator Alexander Reichstein created a beautiful children’s book based on the fable of the eagle and the wren. But the fable, which I first heard from my father, has always been one of my favorites. (My daughter is named, in part, for the little wren.) According to the story, all the birds got into an argument about who could fly the highest and bragged about their accomplishments. So the wise owl declared a contest to determine how high each bird could fly. All the birds began flying, but one by one they tired and dropped out of the contest, until only the eagle was left high in the sky. However, when the eagle was as high as he could fly, a tiny wren crept out from among the eagle’s feathers and flew high about the eagle. When the surprised eagle asked the wren how she flew so high, she replied, “You carried me all the way. I couldn’t have flown so high by myself.”

Today the story of the eagle and the wren reminds me of the partnership between our county offices and Iowa State. None of us can fly very high by ourselves. We all need an eagle. We need the help of other people. We are able to accomplish more because we are working together. I am thankful for our partnership and the commitment and dedication of all our faculty and staff and 900 council members throughout the state. I am confident we can reach new heights together. See you there.

– Cathann


Finding the Problems

March 28th, 2013

“If you like things easy, you’ll have difficulties; if you like problems, you’ll succeed.” – Laotian proverb

Does Extension and Outreach need an “easy” button? It seems to work for Staples. You can download an easy button for your desktop from the Staples website. You even can order your own talking easy button so you can hear “that was easy” at any time. An easy button certainly may come in handy for ordering ink and toner cartridges, but for preparing and delivering our educational programs? Not so much.

Extension and Outreach often has prided itself on being a problem solver. We’ve said we solve problems or we help Iowans solve problems. It used to be easy. Perhaps there used to be fewer problems or perhaps we solved the easy problems first and just left the tough ones. Most education was based on this type of model as well — solving problems.  If train A leaves the station at 6:00 heading east, and train Y leaves a station 50 miles away heading west…

This type of model is based on knowing things.  And Extension and Outreach has always been very good at knowing things.  Today there is so much information out there it’s a bit harder to keep up.  People grasp at quick solutions before understanding what the real problem is.

If you think of it that way, it may not be that we need problem solvers, so much as problem finders.  We are engaging with problems to which even our researchers may not know the answers or taking on the “unknown unknowns,” as Ewan McIntosh says.  Bottom line: You have to understand the issue you’re dealing with before you can find an accurate solution. This is a skill we must cultivate in ourselves and in our clients. 

When we focus on providing access and building capacity, then Iowa State education and research can benefit Iowans quickly and effectively — and Iowans can inform the evolving research. Together we can find the best solutions — after we find the right problems. See you there.

– Cathann

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Those Aha Moments

February 21st, 2013

Perhaps you’ve heard of aha moments, those brief bouts of realization, inspiration, or clarity. Regional Director Sherry McGill recalled such a moment during our annual conference last October. When Firth Whitehouse was explaining the global connections of fruit roll-ups produced in Cedar Rapids, there was an audible gasp in the room as she put up one of her slides.

Using made-in-Iowa foods, including fruit roll-ups, she demonstrated that what we do here in Iowa directly influences how our global food system functions. Thirty years ago most of the ingredients in fruit roll-ups came from Iowa or other states in the U.S. However, to meet today’s demand for the product, the company also is sourcing many of the necessary ingredients from China, Brazil, and Mexico. It takes pear concentrate from China, cottonseed oil from Brazil, and pectin from Mexico just to make fruit-rollups in Cedar Rapids. It also takes applied research — on ingredients, business expansion, and sustainability. Turns out that this simple snack isn’t so simple.

As Firth noted, our world is big, but in terms of our global food system, our world really is very small. Iowa is part of an interconnected collection of many food systems, from simple to complex at local, regional, national, and international levels. Firth stated our food and environmental challenge this way: If Iowa State is to become the university that best serves its state in terms of food system needs, then we must seek out opportunities to learn about new research; work across disciplines to find solutions that Iowans can use every day; and listen to people, ask questions, and make good decisions. What aha have you had lately? See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. Firth’s PowerPoint is available on the annual conference Web page.

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Best Kept Secrets

February 8th, 2013

For years, some of our colleagues here in Iowa and many more throughout the nation have remarked that extension is a “best kept secret.” Just last week, Representative Bruce Bearinger referred to us that way when tweeting about our hotlines.  Type “extension best kept secret” into Google and most of the top 10 results refer to extension work. (The others deal primarily with hair extensions, where I imagine a secret is a good thing.) But being a secret is nothing to be proud of for us. I’ve heard the reasons why for years – we tend to be busy and don’t like to promote ourselves.  Most extension professionals don’t like the spotlight.  It’s hard to fully understand all the variety of work we do.

To reverse this situation, we need a game plan. We need equipment, drills, plays, and strategies. (Sort of sounds like football, but then again, the Super Bowl was just last Sunday.) We need a playbook and our Organizational Advancement team is preparing one right now. You’ll receive your copy in time for Extension and Outreach Week, March 24-30.

The Advancement Playbook is a guide for our organizational marketing efforts. It contains plans to promote and advance Extension and Outreach and advocate to external partners about our educational mission and program impact. The Playbook will make it easier for all players in our system — statewide, on campus, and within counties and regions — to function as one team with one game message: We are a community-based education unit providing the state with educational goods and services that benefit many.

And therein lies the trick, which a playbook is designed to help address – to sort through the clutter, learn fast, and communicate faster. See you there.

– Cathann

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Innovate Boldly

January 31st, 2013

“Innovators understand that their job is to fail, repeatedly, until they don’t.”
— Blogger Seth Godin

“Be bold.” — ISU President Steven Leath

In a recent blog post Seth Godin said that nonprofits are obliged to innovate, but often hesitate. They feel caught in a double bind: their funders want them to be cautious, but also daring. Their work is too important to risk failure or to play it safe. So what’s an organization to do?

In Extension and Outreach, we’re lucky, because President Leath has given us permission to break out of this conundrum. He says we can be bold. In his video message during annual conference, President Leath said, “We rely on you – your expertise and your contacts – to identify and develop bold new partnership ventures that will help us better serve the people of Iowa.”

He also said, “I want others to come to us expecting to partner, and us to be willing to look at any and all possibilities as long as they maintain the integrity of our academic enterprise.”

That sounds like an open call for innovation. So try. Try again. Be bold. See you there.

– Cathann