Because of ‘We’

This week’s message is from guest contributor John Lawrence, director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension and Outreach, and an associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

I always have been proud to be part of our Iowa State University Extension and Outreach team. Although we don’t wear a full uniform like a sports team, we have name tags and similar shirts that say Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Administrators, specialists, and county staff all wear the same brand. We all wave the same flag when things go well, and we’re all painted with the same brush if something goes wrong. So it’s in our best interest when we all are at the top of our game.

ISU Extension and Outreach is strong because we are talented people working together. Promotion and tenure or revenue generation may cause us to focus on “me” from time to time, but our success is because of “we.” We find comprehensive solutions from across programs and disciplines to educate and serve Iowans. We help colleagues to be successful by sharing information, lending a hand, or being a sounding board. The communication and camaraderie make us stronger as we care for our organization and our colleagues.

Our new Mentor Academy is one way we are formalizing this culture. Iowa State hasn’t mastered cloning, so effective coaching is our best chance for replicating great colleagues. The academy will help participants become great mentors to carry our culture and skills into the next generation of our organization.

Effective mentoring takes time to learn and do, and it will compete for time with programming, revenue generation, and engaging stakeholders. All of us may have to shoulder more of the load as mentors work with our new colleagues. Administrators and program leaders must encourage mentoring and acknowledge the mentors’ time and talent. We all have an investment to make in the next generation of ISU Extension and Outreach professionals who will proudly wear our brand.

See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can share your comments about this message on the blog, at You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Our Greatest Asset

Showing new Iowans how to buy, eat, and live healthy; helping entrepreneurs start their own businesses; assisting farm families as they transition their operation from one generation to the next: These are wonderful examples of how ISU Extension and Outreach is harnessing the resources of our university to build a strong Iowa. At our annual conference yesterday we began sharing our #STRONGIOWA stories. We have so many compelling examples of the importance of education and partnerships. These stories demonstrate our commitment to excellence, access, community, and engagement. We all need to share our stories so people understand the private and public good of our work in ISU Extension and Outreach.

As President Leath pointed out yesterday, serving as a 99 county campus requires a strong university, connecting Iowans from river to river and border to border. That is why we have expanded ISU Extension and Outreach into all ISU colleges, developed programs like the Rising Stars Internship and our new Data Center, and established our Engaged Scholarship Funding Program. Today, we are in a solid position to enhance the university through building capacity for extension and engagement. Five years ago we made a commitment to rebuilding a strong ISU Extension and Outreach. Because we made and carried through on that commitment, now we are in a position to work in partnership with the people of this state – to build a strong Iowa.

One of the keys to our success these past five years has been the investment in our greatest asset – our people. For those of you among the nearly 500 who came to Hilton yesterday, thank you for coming and I hope you felt enriched and valued. I know I walked away with a few ideas percolating around in my head: Napoleon’s regret, understanding more about the larger land-grant family through Carrie Billy, Iowa trivia, and my favorite, from Chris Bashinelli, “I thought I was here to change the world, now I know the world is here to change me.”

The progress we’ve made within ISU Extension and Outreach during the past five years is the direct result of the dedication and talent of all of you – the many people who make up our system, including faculty, staff, council members, and volunteers. Our strength is our team, our collaborations, and dedication to our mission. “We believe in people and their hopes, their aspirations, and their faith; in their right to make their own plans and arrive at their own decisions…I believe in my own work and in the opportunity I have to make my life useful to humanity”*

See you there.

— Cathann

*From the Extension Professionals’ Creed

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Remember to use #STRONGIOWA and share your stories on Twitter. For a glimpse at what happened at Annual Conference, search social media under #STRONGIOWA.

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

Getting to “Could”

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:

Rising to the Challenge

Recently Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack talked about the work of Cooperative Extension:

“As a mayor of a small town, a small-town lawyer, a former Governor of Iowa, and now as Secretary of Agriculture, I’ve seen firsthand how Extension benefits Americans each and every day. Extension has improved the lives of millions of consumers and families through things like nutrition education, food safety training, and youth leadership development through the 4-H program. Extension also has contributed to the success of countless farms, ranches, and rural businesses through everything from integrated pest management training on farms, to business planning and risk management tips for entrepreneurs. … In the coming years, we’ll be challenged to find new and improved ways to feed, clothe, and shelter the growing world population. I’m confident that the Extension System will rise to the challenge of bringing these advancements to those who need them most, to support agriculture in the 21st century and beyond.”

Watch the video at

I thought about Secretary Vilsack’s encouraging words often this week, as I participated in the national convocation for the Cooperative Extension centennial May 7-8 in Washington, D.C. I also thought about our own Iowa Senate, which unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act and showed the senators’ support for our work. We even recited the 4-H Pledge together.


We were first in the nation to begin this great work, partnering with citizens to take our university research to the people. We’re honored to serve in a state that believes that education and partnership are how you solve today’s problems and prepare for the future. We’re excited about being part of a nationwide system that is ready, willing, and able to extend knowledge and change lives, provide leadership for the next generation, and rise to the challenge of the next century. See you there.


An Incrementally Better Bucket

This week’s message is from guest contributor Bob Dodds, Region 20 director:

BobDodds2I like visiting gardening centers as spring nears as it’s a great morale boost. While looking through the new gadgets and general supplies on a recent visit, I came across some very bright-handled buckets. As I looked closer, I knew that I needed this one-of-a-kind 3.5-gallon bucket. Now, we have no less than 50 buckets on our farm. However, this one was different, and at $7.50 I just had to have one.

My newly purchased bucket is not high tech. I will not be able to do incredible things that I cannot already do with the other buckets I have on hand. I thought about this on the way home from the garden center. What made this bucket a “must have”? It could be the size, 3.5 gallons instead of the traditional 5-gallon bucket. It could be the soft and colorful handle. It is definitely a step up from most of my favorite recycled buckets that once held oil. I’m referring to those buckets missing the plastic handle so you grip only wire; leaving a line and a bright red mark on your hand each time you use it. Another reason could be the great spout built into the bucket that keeps your shoes dry as you pour, versus the traditional farm bucket that pours everywhere. The unique finger grips on the bottom of the bucket are a nice improvement in engineering over the quarter-inch plastic rim on the bottom of a standard bucket from which your fingers always seem to loose grip and slip off just as the bucket is half empty. This, of course, results in a quick upright motion and a great splash in the face. The hand grip on the side, molded into the plastic, also is a great help. Inside the bucket are marks in quarts and gallon measurements with lines, quite helpful when measuring and evaluating the mixing of various concoctions. For sure it will be much more accurate than the method of eyeing 1/4, 1/3 or 5/8 full. Did I mention that this bucket has just been patented?

I think this bucket story applies to programs and tasks in Extension and Outreach. Many times our successes are not something incredibly new or high tech. Success can be as simple as taking a research-based program and adding relevancy, value, or new technology, or maybe taking a minute to measure and evaluate with greater accuracy than the eyeing method. It might mean that we may turn to Mail Chimp or Constant Contact instead of the traditional newsletter. Instead of handing out paper after paper at a council meeting, the documents could be stored and viewed on an iPad. It could mean adding a marketing plan to a program or offering the program to a new audience. As we review the program catalog and select programs from our signature issues, give thought to the bucket story. Let’s make our bucket better!


I agree with Bob. There are two ways forward- – radical innovation or incremental innovation.  The idea behind incremental innovation is simple: instead of thinking up and executing against completely new and risky ideas, you make small changes to existing products and services. This method of user-centered design thinking can be accomplished much like the bucket redesign by focusing on single tangible customer “pain points” and using existing anchors to build from.  What “pain points” exist for the users of your programs?  What anchor can be extended or enhanced?  Let’s work together to make our bucket better. See you there.

— Cathann

Remember Who We Are

I’ve watched some great animated movies with my kids through the years, and I’m always appreciative of a movie with a message. In The Lion King, Simba reaches a turning point on his journey to adulthood. He is sorting through what is really important to him and to his family legacy, when the music swells and he hears the voice of the father he so admired and recently lost … “Remember who you are.”

I believe it is critical for us in ISU Extension and Outreach to remember who we are. I don’t want us to get so caught up in tasks, that we forget what our work really is. I want us to be relentlessly getting better – and continuing our national reputation for premiere programs in extension. I believe in our collective greatness. I believe in our evolving culture because it is the product of exciting innovation blended into our rich tradition. I believe it is our willingness to keep doing it better that has earned us our support and accolades.

At our annual conference last month our speaker, Debra Davis, discussed how our experiences lead to our beliefs, how a healthy culture belongs to an organization with a shared vision, accountability – where there is trust, respect, communication and engagement. Back in 2011 at our Leadership Summit we came together and agreed to the following fundamental principles which guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities:

• Our core purpose is to engage citizens through research-based educational programs. We extend the resources of Iowa State University across our state.
• We accomplish our goals by developing diverse and meaningful partnerships.
• Through our purpose and partnerships, we provide relevant, needs-driven resources, and as a result, we create significant impact in the state of Iowa.

As a result of these fundamental principles, we agreed to invest in meaningful partnerships, refine a system to collectively identify emerging and current needs, develop and support a structure to sustain professional development, and develop and support systems to improve internal communications, coordination, and collaboration. The documents outlining our principles and priorities are located on my See You There page. I encourage you to review our planning documents along with our annual reports, and let me know how you think we are doing. As we celebrate this great work we call extension – all 100 years of it – I challenge each of us to think about our evolving culture and how it aligns with our guiding principles. When you do, I hope you are as encouraged as I am.

Remember who we are. See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. You can share your comments about this message on the blog, at

Touring Gas Stations

“Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.”

— Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO, O’Reilly Media

According to his blog, Tim O’Reilly spends much of his time “encouraging people to work on stuff that matters.” That sounds like good advice for ISU Extension and Outreach. Funding streams change, percentages fluctuate, fiscal cliffs come and go. But when it comes to our work, we’re not doing a tour of gas stations.

This was well illustrated last summer, when campers at the Iowa 4-H Center experienced an Immersion in Wellness. This Iowa State research study is targeted toward lowering childhood obesity. According to extension nutrition specialist Ruth Litchfield, the kids really did immerse themselves in wellness — from gardening to learning how to cook to eating what they’ve actually grown in the garden and being physically active. They learned that being healthy is fun.

Youth program specialist Brenda Welch leads Mad Scientist Day Camps to get young people excited about STEM learning. When they conduct research-based experiments, such as extracting DNA from bananas, Brenda says, “Their excitement, and the smiles, and the laughter when they actually extract DNA and they can see it in the test tube — it’s incredible.”

During the slowly unfolding crisis of the drought last summer and fall, more than 6,000 Iowans participated in our meetings and webinars and called our hotlines and specialists for updates on crop, livestock, and horticulture issues. As beef specialist Denise Schwab says, “We’re not here for the cattle or for the crops, but we’re here for the farmers that we work with. That’s what makes this job fun and exciting and a challenge to go to work very morning.”

As we begin another year with a new Congress and the Iowa Legislature back in session, remember this: No matter what financial challenges we might face, we will pay attention to the funds, but ISU Extension and Outreach is not about the money. Instead, we’re focused on making sure Iowa State becomes the university that best serves its state. That’s our story. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Watch the videos about these Extension and Outreach efforts and review our annual report at the Our Story website.

Annual Reporting

“Do you want it to be interesting, or do you want it to be true?”
“So far, it’s neither.”
— From “Spaghetti Western,” by Brad Paisley

Last year, as we began gathering information for our annual report, I asked if printed annual reports were the best way to tell our story. Whenever anyone starts planning for a “bigger and better than last year’s” annual report, I find myself asking, “Who’s going to read it?” I figure as interested as I am in our work, if I won’t finish reading something, then it’s likely no one else will either.

Truthfully, I rarely have managed to make it through the traditional annual reports in extension. I’ve seen variations — between five and 100 pages with pictures, graphs, numbers — but I don’t believe producing a report like that helps citizens to understand our work or share our story with others.

Instead, last year we employed the following four principles to drive our annual report:
1. Keep it TRUE.
2. Keep it SHORT.
3. Keep it PERSONAL.
4. Keep it FOCUSED.

Last year we developed an online video-based report with a focus on telling our story. The online format made it easy to share, and eliminated costs that were incurred with the printed version. Visitors to the site originated in 36 different states as well as internationally and there were over 5,000 views of the annual report videos on YouTube. Last year, our annual report received national recognition and was also recognized by an Iowa-based marketing agency as a best practice in annual reporting.

This year, we’re adhering to those principles again and expanding. In January, we’ll be publishing a short annual report and three new videos, and we’ll be updating the website with more new videos throughout the year. We’re going to keep telling the story of ISU Extension and Outreach and we need your help. First, we need you to share the videos and use them to help others understand the breadth and scope of our work. We also need to ensure we have focused on accomplishments and not activities. Our annual report is our opportunity to tell not only what we did, but more important, why we did it. We need to make sure that we are identifying aspects of our work that will help Iowans connect our programs and activities back to our mission. We want the story of ISU Extension and Outreach to be interesting … and true. See you there.

— Cathann

Good Company

“If at first you don’t succeed, you’re in good company.”

Family life specialist Malisa Rader saw that quote on a poster at her child’s middle school and shared it with me. The poster featured four individuals who had failed at major endeavors in their lives.

-The first guy opened a dry goods business and it was a flop. Later he was appointed postmaster in his township and had the worst efficiency record in the county.

-The second guy flunked out of Columbia Law School before beginning a career in public service.

-The third guy opened a hat and shirt shop when he was 35 and went bankrupt after two years in business. It took him 15 years to pay off the debt.

-The fourth guy was rejected three times to command positions before being appointed Supreme Allied Commander in 1942.

I suppose you could call them failures, but most of the time we refer to them as former U.S. presidents:
1. Abraham Lincoln,
2. Franklin D. Roosevelt,
3. Harry Truman, and
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Perhaps they wouldn’t have achieved the accomplishments during their time in office without taking risks in those earlier experiences. So take a risk, try your luck, give it a shot — you might succeed. But even if you don’t, you’ll learn something that may help in your next endeavor. See you there.

— Cathann

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