Between Two Seasons

This morning I found myself wondering if, like me, some of you are sitting at your desks feeling a bit weary. I know it’s the beginning of a new school year, with all those shiny new supplies at the stores. But the end of August always feels like I wasn’t quite done with all my summer commitments, and now I have to turn and catch up to fall.

My house looks like it, too. Sunscreen and flip-flops, vestiges of a more carefree summer, still are scattered by the doorway, but so are the boxes Wren didn’t need as she moved to her residence hall at UNI, and my light jacket I pulled out to walk my dog, Oka, the other night while grumbling to her about how it was getting dark so early again. (Yes, as a new “empty nester” I’m grumbling to the dog these days.)

Summer is so much about growth and expansion. The long days stretch out and feel like they will always be with us — and then, so soon, autumn is upon us with its shorter days, cooler weather, and the last of the flowers.

Of course, it was an ongoing process. It isn’t like one day the earth suddenly shortens the days and gets chilly; it’s been coming on this whole time beneath our level of perception. It seems like a lot happens that way, that caught up in the “busyness” of my days I sometimes lose track of the slight changes occurring around me, which seem to suddenly become big. I would have liked one more week of flowers, flip-flops, and my daughter’s laughter. I’m not quite ready yet for turning leaves, football, and sweaters.

For those of us who work all across the state in ISU Extension and Outreach, we need to keep our eyes open to those slight changes. We need to recognize the subtle shifts that signal something which will eventually become a big change or a central need. And I encourage us to think about how we do something about it, even when we’d rather stay where we were. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Big Things — and Dents in the Universe

As another year gets underway, I’ve thought a lot about what it means to engage with Iowans and I’ve thought a lot about what ISU Extension and Outreach has done for more than 100 years. We’ve had some pretty impressive accomplishments: the response and education at the time of the Farm Crisis, the technology transfer of food preservation and hybrid seed, even our response earlier this year to the Avian Influenza outbreak, including our focus on the human side of it.

But not everything we do has to be big to be worthwhile. Is it not sometimes a good thing to take some small part of people’s lives and make it a little better? Not to disrupt anything, or dramatically change it, not to raise millions of dollars, not to have droves of people demanding it — but just to look around our small part of the world and try to make it a little better, try to hand it over to the next generation a little better than we found it.

However, making things a little bit better can be a hard sell. According to David Heinemeier Hansson, the founder of the software company Basecamp, people these days aren’t content just to put their “dent in the universe.” Instead, they want to own the universe and capture their customers. But for those of us in ISU Extension and Outreach, is that what we really want? What is success in community-based education, for dedicated extension professionals?

We don’t need plans to corner the market, because we have something far better than that — our commitment to excellence, access, community, and engagement. That’s what spurs us to do big things in ISU Extension and Outreach, tackling the issues facing our state and responding in times of crisis. It also moves us to make our part of the world a little bit better. This combination of big things and dents in the universe is how we build a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S.  You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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

The Path that Makes Future Change Easier

Recently, I was reading some articles on software development. I know. When I started a conversation at home with this sentence, my daughter looked at me in disbelief. The real story is I was stuck in an airport late at night and the only reading material had been abandoned by a previous passenger. I thumbed through most of it, but one section caught my attention.

Apparently in the software development world, there is a group of methods for practice referred to as Agile, in which solutions evolve through collaboration between cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning and continuous improvement. Agile as a practice requires just a few steps:

  • Find out where you are.
  • Take a small step toward your goal.
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you just learned.
  • Repeat.
  • How to do it: When faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.

And that’s it. According to Andy Hunt, those four steps and one practice encompass everything there is to know about effective software development. Of course, this involves a fair amount of thinking and some additional cautions. Don’t confuse the model with reality. Thinking that your project should “go this way” like it did in your head or on paper might trap you. The only thing a project is supposed to do is succeed.

Also, don’t spell out too much detail too soon. Hunt calls that premature optimization and essentially suggests that detail too early can act like instant glue — limiting innovation and reducing options. So give yourself (and your colleagues) some room to find out where you are, experiment, and adjust your understanding. Then pick the path that makes future change easier. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Where We Are and Looking Ahead

Four years ago when I interviewed for the vice president position, I challenged the participants in my open forum to think about ISU Extension and Outreach five years in the future and imagine failure. Why? Because it’s a way for an organization to prevent its own death. The participants in my forum provided six consistent reasons ISU Extension and Outreach might fail. (See my blog post,  Pre-mortem for Organizations.)

As you know, I got the job and now I am beginning Year 5. So I’d like to take another look at those reasons for potential failure.

  • In 2011 my forum participants – these were ISU Extension and Outreach faculty and staff, mind you – said the first reason we would fail would be poor communication both internally and externally.
  • Second, they said our inability to change would do us in – our unwillingness to let go of familiar programs as well as irrelevant programs.
  • The third reason was isolation from constituents and critical partners, as well as field, campus, and upper administration.
  • Fourth, we were suffering from an unclear vision and mission – we weren’t in sync with the values of Iowa, constituents, and the university.
  • Number 5 was poor leadership – leaders who don’t motivate others, solve problems holistically, or build public support for the public good.
  • The final reason was insufficient resources, since the participants were concerned about continuing decreases in funding.

I think we have made gains in some of these areas, and in some we still struggle, but we are trying to figure out how to more fully address them. So what do you think? I challenge you to respond – and please be honest. Over the next three weeks, add your comments to my blog. Then I’ll summarize your comments, add my own, and get back to you with an update on where we are now. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Plan for Friction

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but friction plays a pretty big role in our lives –both positive and negative. Friction is part of what makes it hard to get my bike up the next hill (take note those of you planning to ride RAGBRAI), but it’s also what makes it possible to stop my bike before the railroad tracks. While we can reduce or minimize friction, it’s always present.

So it’s not surprising that when engineers design engines they plan for friction. They know that when an engine runs, unexpected stuff will happen. Determining the exact cause of the problem can be complicated. Seasoned mechanics often will combine computerized diagnostics with their own knowledge and experience to figure out the issue. It’s just part of the design process. There’s no drama involved. We could learn from that approach.

When stuff happens in life, things get more complex. Friction in human relationships or endeavors is more difficult to understand. Maybe we don’t like drama, but most of us will respond in similar ways. Often, we increase complexity even more by seeking more information and conducting more analyses. That’s not all bad, but it can spiral into levels of complexity, including organizational complexity — more meetings, decision delays, and specialized teams. We add layers of policy and processes intended to address the complexity, but it could make it worse. Essentially, we replace clarity with detail. As a result, activity increases and so does confusion. At the same time, trust decreases and so does effectiveness. It’s hard to stay focused on staying clear and focused when your legs feel like lead weights from trying to pump up that last hill.

Just because we encounter friction doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction or need to abandon the project. We rarely will have the ideal conditions we might wish for. Stuff will happen, so plan for friction. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Working at the Speed of Trust

Your mindset matters when you want to get something done. What’s in your head affects who you decide to engage with, how you work together, and how you progress toward your goals. I’ve been reading lately about the difference between collaboration and organizing for collective impact. The authors said collective impact succeeds only when it uses evidence and builds relationships, because change happens at the speed of trust.

The speed of trust. Isn’t that true? I thought about that a lot this past week as I was out traveling across our state. I’m fortunate to work with so many whom I not only respect, but also trust. When you think about it, we don’t want Iowans just to have an experience with us. We don’t want just to have a relationship with them. We want them to trust us.

From where I sit, trust requires a few things. You all know what I’m talking about — being reliable, honoring promises, and being loyal. A few that don’t get as much attention, but should, are to seek clarity and to be clear. In other words, when an opportunity to be vague arises, don’t take it. Create transparency whenever possible, right wrongs (there is perhaps a whole post I could write about just that), and keep trying to be better.

However, the number one ingredient for building trust is the ability to offer it to others first. My dad firmly believed that any of the important things we want in life (trust, love, respect, happiness, success, etc.), we get only by first giving them to others.

More than 100 years ago, Iowans throughout the state began turning to Iowa State because they trusted their land-grant university. The original extension workers provided farmers and families and 4-H’ers with research-based information that they could apply to their own farms and in their own lives. Extension also extended trust back to Iowans by engaging them in this work, not just as recipients but as co-creators. Together, we create the social experience through which innovations spread. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. You can read “Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Ask Beautiful Questions

Earlier today I met with the Community and Economic Development (CED) faculty and staff and the regional directors as they held their joint in-service. One of the things we talked about was how I always know it’s going to be a good conversation when Tim Borich (Program Director, CED, and Associate Dean, College of Design) wanders into my office and begins a conversation with “What if …?” Tim, you see, has mastered the art of asking beautiful questions.

Author Warren Berger says we should ask beautiful questions – the kind that help us shift our reasoning and assist in bringing about change. These questions are ambitious and the mere fact of asking them involves taking action. When we ask a beautiful question, we ask “how.” We ask, “what if.” Engaging with these types of questions makes us think.

Asking beautiful questions in Extension and Outreach has resulted in some amazing answers. When we asked how we could engage Iowa State students with local foods education and potential extension careers, we developed the Rising Star Internship program. When we asked how we could help young livestock producers connect with each other for success in agriculture, we established the Beginning and Young Livestock Producer Network. When we asked how we could reach Latino audiences more effectively, we decided to integrate our Latino youth, family, community, and business development programs. Berger points to a University of Illinois study which found that when trying to motivate yourself, questions work better than statements or commands. Questions apparently help us to begin to act when we are uncertain. But there is an art to shaping a beautiful question. According to Edward Witten, that means “a question that is hard (and interesting) enough that it is worth answering – and easy enough that one can actually answer it.”

How might we create more collaboration? How can we engage more faculty with communities? How can we embed students in real world experiences? How can we help farmers with effective succession planning? Beautiful, ambitious questions can be game-changers and lead to breakthroughs. But you won’t know until you ask. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Warren Berger’s article in Fast Company.

Innovation and Relationships

Yesterday I participated in a national study of innovation in extension, and I have to say that I ended the day feeling less confident that I understand innovation, its role, and what supports it than I did before. Uh-oh.

It started with the first question I was asked: “How do you define innovation in extension?” I know. That sounds like an easy question until they follow it by asking you to give three examples. Where do you start?

I don’t know how your thought process goes, but how do you talk about innovation in extension in the first place? Do you mean an innovative program? Do you mean an innovation that we helped diffuse to the larger population? Do you mean an innovation in how extension is structured and delivered?

In some ways, answering this question is like being in a house of mirrors. Extension was essentially created as a targeted innovation diffusion structure. The role of extension was to provide the trusted adviser and create the social process through which innovations could spread. I think sometimes people misunderstand the role of extension and think we are just information dissemination, and if that’s the case, then there is good reason to worry with the Internet and other means for accessing information 24/7. People who think this way often believe that important innovations will spread quickly, now that we’ve got the Internet. Some do, such as innovations related to communication technologies and YouTube videos.

However, according to Atul Gawande there is a long list of vital innovations that don’t catch on just by sharing the information. The puzzle is, why? Gawande studied whether innovation diffusion was negatively impacted by economics, technical complexity, and other factors. What Gawande learned is that there is a pattern with stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious and requires effort that may not yield its full impact until much later. In other words, they are “wicked problems” that have complex solutions and require changing social norms. Gawande notes that truly changing norms requires nearly one-on-one, on-site mentoring — which doesn’t sound like much of a solution. Gawande states, “It would require broad mobilization, substantial expense, and perhaps even the development of a new profession.” (Hmmm. Sounds like extension work.)

Gawande, who works in the medical field, continues: “Think about the creation of anesthesiology — it meant doubling the number of doctors in every operation, and we went ahead and did so. To reduce illiteracy, countries, starting with our own, built schools, trained professional teachers, and made education free and compulsory for all children. To improve farming, governments have sent hundreds of thousands of agriculture extension agents to visit farmers across America and every corner of the world and teach them up-to-date methods for increasing their crop yields. Such programs have been extraordinarily effective. They have cut the global illiteracy rate from one in three adults in 1970 to one in six today, and helped give us a Green Revolution that saved more than a billion people from starvation.”

Gawande then goes on to quote one of Iowa State’s own, Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas spread. Rogers wrote, “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.” Media can introduce an idea, but people look to other people they know and trust when they decide whether they will pursue that new idea. Extension — innovation and relationships. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Gawande’s article at

This Is the Work

Early in my career (OK, a really long time ago), I was a hall adviser at Iowa State University. I was responsible for providing support services to students, primarily 800 women who lived in Maple Hall. Our staff had all kinds of plans for programs we wanted to implement and activities to engage students in optimizing their development. Yep. We were a pretty idealistic bunch.

But when you bring 800 people together, things happen. Some of them get sick. Some have really tough break-ups with their boyfriends. Some get engaged. Some lose their parents. Some fail a class. Some get scholarships. Some make poor choices, like the ones who decided to rappel from the top of the hall.

One frustrating and long day, one of my staff said it would be nice if we didn’t have so many distractions so we could just get our work done. But here’s the thing: this is the work. That’s true in ISU Extension and Outreach too. We really are about the people and people change, people have emotions, people have unexpected things happen to them, people have lives. This is the reason Mike Kruzeniski, director of experience design at Twitter, says it is so important to make sure you are thinking about how you want to build your organization while you are designing whatever great things your organization builds.

Kruzeniski says “we all just want to focus on designing and making great things, but building the company is what will support you to do the work you aspire to do … and it takes a long time. When company stuff gets complicated, it’s easy to complain, to point at the people you think are responsible, or to just quit. But it’s your job to help. Your role in a company isn’t to just be the designer of products; your role is to be a designer of that company, to help it become the company that has the ability to make the products you aspire to make. When you joined your company, you probably didn’t think you signed up to help build the company too, but you did. By helping to make your company a better place to work, you make it a better place to design and build things.”

Kruzeniski also says “don’t just think about that one product you need to design in the next three, six, or 12 months. Consider the skills, relationships, and tools that you and your company will need for the next two, five, seven, or 10 years and start working on them now. Don’t just measure yourself by the output of your very next project; Measure yourself by how you’re improving quality over the course of your next 10 projects. Measure yourself by the quality of the projects of your peers. When you see problems, go tackle them, even if nobody told you to. Put it on yourself to make it better, so that your current and future colleagues won’t have to deal with that same problem. Your job is to be the shoulders that the next generation of designers  —  and perhaps your future self  —  at your company will stand on.”

At ISU Extension and Outreach, we all have very busy days conducting needs assessments, developing programs, managing finances, delivering educational programs, managing people, collaborating with key partners — and designing the future Extension and Outreach. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.