Building a Bike Shed

March 6th, 2014

How many resources does an organization expend to make a decision? You’d think that an organization would spend more time and money on decisions about big, costly, complex issues and less time on simpler issues with smaller price tags. But it often doesn’t work that way.

In his book Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, (which has been quoted and commented on by many bloggers and Wikipedia editors), C. Northcote Parkinson describes a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new atomic power plant. The agenda included three items: approving the plans for the plant, discussing a new bicycle shed for employees, and the refreshment expenses of the Welfare Committee. The committee spent two and a half minutes discussing the highly complex power plant, 45 minutes debating the bicycle shed, and over an hour furiously debating the refreshments. That matter eventually was left unresolved and deferred to a further meeting.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive, and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. A bike shed, on the other hand, is easily understood; almost anyone can build one of those over a weekend. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, some people will seize the chance to put their fingerprints on the project to demonstrate that they are paying attention.

Parkinson summed this up as his Law of Triviality: “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Essentially, Parkinson’s metaphor raises the issue of noticing when governance gets reduced to sharing “our two-cents worth” and that we need not argue every feature just because we know enough to do so. It also may be true that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.

Simplest problems can take up most of our time. When we’re facing a decision, it might not hurt to first ask whether we’re dealing with a bike shed or an atomic reactor, so that we give the decision the attention it deserves. If it’s a simple issue, let’s not get bogged down by minutia. But if it’s a complex issue, let’s make sure we have all the information we need so we truly understand what we’re talking about and can make the best decision. See you there.

– Cathann

, , ,

Packages, Pizza, and People

February 20th, 2014

Recently, my oldest son was reading an article to me about how Amazon plans to start offering deliveries via drone-like “octocopters.” While there are numerous issues for them to still work out – like negotiating bad weather, sufficient battery life, and the fact that most human beings may not be able to resist knocking stuff out of the sky – it could be reality at some time in the not too distant future. Domino’s Pizza also is contemplating such a delivery system. I find this quite interesting, mostly because there’s just nothing like having a delivery system that brings you something you want quickly and efficiently.

This reminded me of comments from colleagues who responded to my informal organizational survey last summer. Some of them focused on Extension and Outreach as a distribution system with procedures to facilitate and monitor the flow of information from the university to the public. Carrying out the metaphor, the system has distribution centers linked to local franchises, but needs a host of delivery people to move the produce. One colleague talked about the importance of delivery people in this system:

In most cases you know them well and they are trusted faces. They go everywhere, are admitted in places where others aren’t invited, and are present in the daily lives of the whole of society. All of this is, of course, secondary to their primary role of deliverers of service. Who doesn’t anxiously wait for the arrival of that package ordered online or isn’t pleasantly surprised by a card in the mail? The pizza guy is a welcome and anticipated visitor at my house, because he brings us something valuable, something that we desire. … Our organization should aspire to be an efficient and effective delivery system represented by the best, friendliest, and most trusted delivery people around. … We should always be timely, courteous, and deliver only the highest quality product.

It begs the question: What do our constituents want delivered? To that end, we just completed our statewide needs assessment, and the major “Aha” for me was recognizing where the identified needs might fit in our overall program development process. While we must be responsive to our citizens, we also can’t walk away from mainstay programs in our portfolio. That’s why we are creating a model to help us all consider the layers of programs which make up our overall efforts. At Annual Conference, we will begin to identify work that falls into each layer and the revenue sources that will fund our work.

Extension and Outreach should aim to be that trusted delivery person, providing welcome access to university research and education. After all, there is a reason we call so much of the work we do “program delivery.” See you there.

– Cathann

, ,

Extension and Outreach Can Be Gloriously Messy

January 31st, 2014

One of the many joys of my job is the breadth of people I get the opportunity to interact with on a regular basis.  Yesterday for example, I was at a meeting with the Lt. Governor and heard fifth graders explaining their STEM project on habitats for small creatures.  There were frogs and millipedes involved in the demonstration.  A few weeks ago, I was meeting with winery owners and hearing their challenges with Iowa’s temperature extremes.  NOTE:  Wine was not  part of that demonstration.  And this morning, I was in a meeting with some physics professors as they attempted to “dumb down” the latest thinking on a coherent theory of the universe so I could grasp it.  I go home with my mind blown a lot.

That last one, though, is worth pondering. It used to be that physicists believed that they would one day uncover a coherent theory of how the entire universe holds together and works.  Now, the thinking is — maybe not.  Marcelo Gleiser at Dartmouth College argues against the likelihood of a unifying theory to explain the origins of the universe and our place in it.  In fact, according to Gleiser, the latest evidence reveals not only that there are imperfections in the fabric of the universe — they are the driving, creative forces behind its very existence. The universe, it turns out, is not elegant. It is gloriously messy.

I loved that idea when I heard it — and I saw Extension and Outreach as one small microcosm in that universe. The beauty of Extension and Outreach is that it IS kind of gloriously messy, and that’s where creativity happens. There isn’t one formula, or one way to organize, or one easy-to-follow blueprint that explains Extension and Outreach or predicts success in programming.  Our diverse partners and their ideas are wide-ranging and we want them engaged with us.  They often have different ideas about what they want, sometimes even contradictory.  This messiness gives us permission to experiment and be innovative. There likely will be more messiness this year as we take a closer look at our organizational culture and the direction we want Extension and Outreach to take moving forward.

To that end, all faculty, staff, and council members are welcome to participate in the 2014 Extension and Outreach Annual Conference. You’ll learn about our organizational culture, project and budget management, and putting new technology to work for programming — skills to help you navigate in this wonderful, organized chaos of Extension and Outreach.

It takes really dedicated people to do Extension and Outreach work. You have to be willing to experiment, to try different approaches, to live with ambiguity and imperfection. Sometimes our ideas work — sometimes even better than we thought they would. But sometimes they don’t work or don’t fit what our partner wanted and we have to start over and that’s part of the process. We are a learning organization. An important part of how we operate is that we try things, we learn from the experience, and we go on. Our 2014 annual conference will help us move Extension and Outreach forward. Here’s to embracing our gloriousness. See you there.

– Cathann

, , , ,

It’s Kind of a Big Deal

January 16th, 2014

2013annual-SYTWe recently published our 2013 annual report online. It’s amazing how much time it takes to shoot a 4-minute video. When you combine various locations (Hilton Coliseum, Jack Trice Stadium, and central campus), students walking into the shots, and yes, some flubbed lines by yours truly, it takes a while to get the end product “just right.”

So why do we do it? Because Extension and Outreach puts Iowa State University’s research and resources to work throughout the state of Iowa. That’s kind of a big deal. And it’s well worth talking about. Our stakeholders – clients, citizens, partners, funders, and public policy leaders – hold us accountable. They want to know that their investments in ISU Extension and Outreach are making a difference in Iowa. We have to tell our story in a way that they will remember and share with others. This is critical to our ability to survive and thrive. That’s why our 2013 annual report is part of the “Our Story” website and includes a video message, financial charts, and – new this year – infographics to show our impacts.

We’re serious about serving our fellow Iowans. So not only do we operate as a 99 county campus, we have to show and tell our clients what we’re doing to make a difference. Because what Extension and Outreach helps people do for themselves, achieves the greatest results. See you there.

– Cathann

, ,

The Great One

January 9th, 2014

With our temperatures recently, we’ve been keeping an eye on the Petersen Pond near our house. If we can stand the cold, outdoor ice skating will definitely be possible (so far, we’ve gone to the indoor rink). While searching for my skates, my son and I got to talking about arguably the greatest hockey player, Wayne Gretzky.

I walked away from the conversation mulling a few thoughts about what made Gretzky “the great one.” Gretzky’s size, strength, and basic athletic abilities were not considered impressive. However, his intelligence and reading of the game was unrivaled, and he could consistently anticipate where the puck was going and execute the right move at the right time. In fact, he was most noted for his ability to think far ahead of what was currently happening and be ready for what was coming.

He also was considered an incredibly creative player, able to adapt and alter his playing style as situations required. When the Canadians played in the 1998 Olympics, they struggled with the larger ice surface and different style of play preferred by the Europeans, but Gretzky was legend for his ability to see the opportunity rather than the obstacle and shift his actions to take advantage of it.

While many were quick to credit Gretzky with impressive innate abilities, almost superpowers, Gretzky himself was always quick to point out that anticipation could be taught, practiced, and perfected. He credited his study of the game, and that he could instantly recognize and capitalize on emerging patterns because of his understanding of the details and nuances of the playing field. Gretzky also differed from other players in his ability to renew his energy quickly, and the commitment of time to practice. He credited both with being critical to his success.

Gretzky is famous for a quote describing how his dad would drill him on the fundamentals by asking him, “Where do you skate?” Gretzky’s response: “To where the puck is going, not where it’s been.”

As we think ahead to the next five years in Iowa, what lessons might Extension and Outreach learn from Gretzky? Are we teaching ourselves to anticipate, adapt, and be creative? Do we see opportunities in the changes ahead or only obstacles? Have we identified the trends that will most impact our fellow Iowans in the future? Have we begun to move in directions that will allow us to support and educate in response to those issues? Are we skating to where the puck is going? See you there.

– Cathann

NOTE:  This week we published our Iowa State University Extension and Outreach 2013 annual report, Making a Difference for Iowans. It includes a video message along with infographics of program impacts and financial information for FY13. The report is available online and is part of ISU Extension and Outreach’s Our Story website. The report shows how we’re making a difference for Iowans. It includes a video message along with infographics of program impacts and financial information for FY13. A printable pdf of the report is linked from the website.

, , , ,

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

, ,


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

, , ,

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

, , ,

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

, ,