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:

Today Is September 11

A day we will never forget. As someone who worked in the Pentagon and lived in New York, I find myself reflecting on where I was and how those events shaped our perceptions of safety, community, and hope.

For me, what I choose to remember from that day is how many of us reached out for each other. On the Cornell University campus, we gathered and as a community, we affirmed an African greeting, which translated means —  I am here –recognizing our connections to each other and our unity.

Much has been written about September 11, but whatever our networks, our communities, our families – may we remember their importance, may we recognize our connections, and may we hold on to our hope.  I am here.

— Cathann

Let Freedom Rock

freedom-rockLast week I had the opportunity to visit southwest Iowa, specifically, our ISU Extension and Outreach Region 18. My trip included tours of Owner Revolution Inc. (a plastics manufacturing company that works with our partner CIRAS), a wind turbine, and the Warren Cultural Center and Adair County Extension office. I also had a great conversation with ISU Extension and Outreach staff about our organizational culture, outcomes from our recent annual conference, and where we’re headed as an organization.

I always appreciate the opportunity to stay in touch with our partners and the work our staff, faculty, and specialists do throughout the state. But this visit also was inspiring, because along the way I met an individual who in his own way is making a difference for Iowans. Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II painted Iowa’s original Freedom Rock, a 12-foot-tall boulder located along Iowa Highway 25 about a mile south of exit 86 on Interstate 80. He repaints it every year, just in time for Memorial Day. It’s his way of thanking U.S. veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice for our nation. He doesn’t get paid and he doesn’t receive a commission to do it. He just does it, with his own funds, donations, and sales of Freedom Rock merchandise. Last year he began The Freedom Rock Tour, with the goal of painting a patriotic-themed rock in every Iowa county.

My family still calls it Decoration Day, but Memorial Day was intended to remember those who died in service to our country. I think of it as a day to reflect upon service, and Ray’s artwork provides a powerful visual of what service can entail. While I worked at the Pentagon, I attended national ceremonies at Arlington — a definite reminder of the service of so many. Next week many communities will be having parades, celebrations, or service events to commemorate the day. There are many kinds of service and at its best, it’s action necessary for communities to thrive and prosper.

Whether you celebrate with marching bands and 21-gun salutes, or let freedom “rock” in quiet contemplation by a painted stone, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on service and how critical it is for freedom. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Special thanks to Deena Wells, Adair County office assistant, for taking this photo.

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

Together We Reach New Heights

“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

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

Beyond Better Sameness: 2012 Program Catalog

Steve Jobs argued against asking customers what they want, because much of the time, he maintained customers will tell you they want “better sameness.” They want the same thing they have, just better, faster, cheaper. For example, before automobiles were invented, people wanted stronger and faster horses. Essentially, we can only describe what we want in terms of what we already know. The trouble is, it only allows incremental change. How can we innovate or move towards new ideas when we don’t know what the possibilities could be?

Frank W. Capek with Customer Innovations Inc. suggests, instead, to (1) focus on behaviors that drive results; (2) create meaningful, memorable, and differentiated experiences; and (3) deliver in ways that build a strong bond with customers. He says you must move beyond better sameness if you want to provide customers with highly influential experiences.

One way we can move beyond better sameness in ISU Extension and Outreach is in how we communicate and develop our programs. Capek recommends moving from “campaigns,” which sell ideas we wish to promote, to conversations about the future, and to focus on ways to empower partners and create processes that are easy and, perhaps, even fun.

So, that’s what we’re trying to do with this week’s release of the ISU Extension and Outreach 2012 Program Catalog. I wouldn’t say we made it all the way to fun yet. But we hope creating a single, online collection of program options will enhance our program development process by promoting conversations, empowering partners, and allowing us to think more broadly than just a little cheaper or faster version of what we did last year. What’s beyond better sameness? Possibilities. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. The catalog is an internal planning document for ISU Extension and Outreach staff, county staff, and extension councils and is housed on the ISU Extension and Outreach “For Staff” website, at For assistance with logging in, please contact a regional director, program director, or other staff member.

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