Extension and Outreach Is for Problem Solvers

This week’s message is from guest contributor Linda Brinkmeyer, Administrative Assistant in my office.

This harvest season my new daughter-in-law pickled jalapeño peppers from her garden. Impressive. I have enjoyed hearing about how she started her garden from a seed tray, her success with the kale and pepper crops, and the struggles with her tomatoes.

This woman is a down-to-earth problem solver. However, she became frustrated enough with her tomato plants’ non-performance that she pulled them out and threw them into the compost pile behind the garage. (Extension and Outreach has something to say about that: “The Do’s and Don’ts of Composting.”) Come to find out, those tomatoes really took to that compost, and before too long she was showing me her hearty tomato plants growing cattywampus out of that compost pile.

Her subsequent plotting (no pun intended) resulted in great ideas. First, she realized there was too much shade in the back yard, so she thought she might put a raised bed in their sunnier front yard for tomatoes and other sun-loving plants. (See “Raised Beds for Vegetable Production.”) Second, the situation with the compost pile led her to believe that the soil in her raised beds in the back yard may need a boost. (Check “Yard and Garden: Soil pH and Testing.”)

She went on to tell me about a conversation she’d had with a friend about strategies for preparing garden soil in the fall for spring planting. She shared that he had informed her about this really great collection of knowledge built into a website and even a hotline! I said, “You mean ISU Extension and Outreach, right?” Yes, she replied, although she felt a little sheepish about not having connected me with ISU Extension and Outreach. (It’s not like I’m a vice president or anything. I just work for one.)

I was absolutely delighted to talk with her about her ambitious gardening, which led into another discussion about how she and my son are experimenting with preparing their weeknight meals on the weekends, to stay in line with their budget and keep their hectic lifestyle more manageable. I wonder if there is anything on the ISU Extension and Outreach website about that? (Try this tip from Spend Smart. Eat Smart.)

Extension and Outreach is for problem solvers.

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

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.

More Than a Cup of Joe

This week, I had an interesting conversation with my children about a cup of coffee. We had agreed to meet for coffee and then had quite a discussion about where we wanted to go. Each of us suggested several places, and as we argued their merits, I realized something bigger was afoot and relevant to those of us in Extension and Outreach.

My middle son – ever the practical one – was all about who had the most reasonable price with minimum fuss. My older son cited his choice for its convenience, ample parking, and short lines. My daughter’s choice, however, at first was met with derision. She suggested her choice because she “felt comfortable” sitting there. “It’s about coffee,” son 2 retorted, and as she dug in, I realized that no, it wasn’t. As we all gathered at the coffee shop she had advocated, it was clear to me that some things become meaningful and create value in our lives beyond their utility or convenience. It’s worth the extra effort to seek them out, because of how we feel about them or what we believe about the experience.

Sometimes people just want a convenient cup of joe, but sometimes they want more. If we provide them with an exceptional experience, they’ll come back again and tell their friends. Our goal should be to create both meaning and value, as well as utility and convenience. See you there.

— Cathann

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

1,000 Strawberry Points

StrawberryPoint200Icons can be widely known symbols, like the little bird on my cell phone that helps me find my Twitter account. Other icons are objects of devotion, as evidenced by teenage girls swooning over the boy band One Direction. And there’s a wide range between these two extremes. In any case, icons offer insights into what we find important. They mean something to us.

If you’ve ever been to Strawberry Point, Iowa, you know there’s just something iconic about that great big strawberry that’s high in the sky above downtown. That giant berry represents a distinct identity and pride of place in a one-of-a-kind community. That’s why we used it in our 2014 annual report to help illustrate how many people ISU Extension and Outreach serves. Last year more than 1 million people directly benefited from our programs. That’s one thousand Strawberry Points.

There are other Iowa icons in our annual report as well – the High Trestle Trail, the American Gothic house, and “Main Street,” to name a few. They’re a shortcut to make our point: We are everywhere for Iowans. Iowa State educates more Iowa students than any other university, and ISU Extension and Outreach educates more Iowans. Having said that, it’s awfully hard to boil our work down to numbers or a brief report, because we all know that it’s more than numbers and more than Web clicks. It’s about children and their families, businesses and farmers, teachers, manufacturers, local leaders, caregivers, and legislators. The list goes on and on, because our work is about building capacity and mostly, it’s about people and our institution’s lifelong partnership with them. We know Iowa’s people and places, and we look forward to continuing to serve our fellow Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Review our 2014 annual report. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

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 http://blogs.extension.iastate.edu/seeyouthere/.

Packages, Pizza, and People

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

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