What We All Want

This time of year many of us are contemplating “wish lists” as we approach the holidays. Maybe someone you know has the latest Star Wars light saber on his or her list. Or an Alex and Ani bracelet. Even though my children are mostly grown (Wren’s a senior — how did that happen?), they still like putting together their lists of what they want. I’ve noted that the older they get, the more expensive the items on their lists seem to get, too. For several years, besides the things they want, my children also have talked about what they hope for the coming year, their wishes about doing well at college, or managing the challenges that come with growing up.

That got me thinking about what we want and hope for in ISU Extension and Outreach. Every year more than a million people directly benefit from our programs. That translates to about 1 in 3 Iowans. But it’s more likely we impact everyone in the state in some way. Do you eat in restaurants? We train foodservice workers in safe food handling practices. Do you want clean water? Iowa State helped develop the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and engages Iowans in this science and technology-based approach to improving Iowa waterways. Do you want to protect monarch butterflies? We’re part of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, working to enhance butterfly habitat in rural and urban areas of our state.

Our work is for the public good. We do the work that needs to be done, and our communities and families depend upon us. That’s why we serve Iowans every day. To celebrate that idea, I invited a few young Iowans to join me in creating this year’s video. It was a fun morning and I hope you enjoy what we did. These children and so many others like them across our state are the reason we do what we do every day in ISU Extension and Outreach. We’re working together to build a strong Iowa for their future. As we look forward to a new year, ISU Extension and Outreach will continue our commitment to harnessing the resources of our university for communities and farmers to thrive, for families and children to be healthy, and eventually to turn the world over to the next generation better than we found it. Because what we all want is a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Caring for the Commons

During my teen years on a farm in southeast Iowa, my summer job was to move our flock of about 500 sheep from pasture to pasture at the appropriate times. Some people would have called me a shepherd, but I called myself a pasture steward, because my family had taught me that before you could be a shepherd you had to have a healthy pasture. I didn’t just regulate how long the sheep stayed on one patch. I worked long and often hot days cutting down bull thistle and nettles, fighting back multiflora rose, repairing fence, reseeding sections, and studying drainage and grazing patterns. I paid attention to weather forecasts and I spent hours walking throughout the pastures to the point that I knew the fine detail of each one’s condition and potential.

Today my view is a lot better than the backsides of 500 sheep; but the work, well, it’s kind of the same. Only instead of taking care of a pasture, together we are caring about the things we share in common, which build a strong Iowa.

For any community – virtual, social, or physical – to thrive, there must be those who care for the things we hold in common, but for which none of us has actual individual responsibility. Frances Moore Lappé put it this way: “How do we protect, not what we own individually, but those indivisible goods we inherit, share, and yearn to pass on unharmed or enriched to our children?” This idea is well documented in environmental issues, but no less important in other community assets. Caring for the commons is an act of individual stewardship (long-term care for a resource for the benefit of oneself and others, including the resource itself). Caring for the commons means more than just regulating. We must be caretakers in a system, nurturing cooperation in society and sharing goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come.

Within environmental stewardship, the notion has even generated a fable, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out that if each individual attempts to take more than his or her share by even a small amount, the consequences can be devastating. Hardin said education could counteract our natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but with each new generation the basis for this knowledge must be constantly refreshed. In ISU Extension and Outreach, we are the stewards of this engagement mission. That’s how we care for the commons. Our land grant mission is our legacy – offering opportunity, providing access, and sharing knowledge with all. See you there.

— Cathann

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

The “Doing” Matters

Right before Thanksgiving, I attended the national meeting of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. It’s a stellar crowd with presidents, provosts, and other education leaders, and the discussions usually are interesting and thought-provoking. One of our keynotes was provided by Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, and former Secretary of Homeland Security and Governor of Arizona.

President Napolitano talked about how students – and others seeking education – don’t just want information. They are seeking skills to turn education into opportunities to make a difference in the world. She challenged us as educators to think about how to prepare those we educate for the “giving back that makes life meaningful.” She encouraged us to consider ways to make our educational classes and programs living labs to test ideas within communities.

Napolitano suggested we regularly ask, “What do we want our society to be and how can the university help us meet our aspirations?” It’s a good question and clearly involves ISU Extension and Outreach. Napolitano believes that the greatest hope for a resilient and dynamic society is the full engagement of the public university with its communities.

She ended her speech by quoting Kurt Vonnegut, “To be is to do.” She also pointed out that the “doing” matters. She said we needed to realize that not all cost is waste at public universities; we’re making investments in opportunity. She urged us to keep our universities strongly connected to our communities. Then she ended with a powerful thought: “Hope is the future we deliver.” See you there.

— Cathann

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

A Gift through Time

Cathann Kress touring USS IowaI recently spent some time out on the west coast with national meetings and conferences. Those of you who know my appreciation for history won’t be surprised to learn that I made a point of touring the USS Iowa, now permanently located in Long Beach as a museum. It’s impressive and I couldn’t help but ponder that I was standing where incredible leaders like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once stood. The USS Iowa was known as the Battleship of Presidents because NO other battleship in our nation’s history has been host to more U.S. Presidents than the IOWA. Her other accolades include designation as the “World’s Greatest Naval Ship” due to her big guns, heavy armor, fast speed, longevity and modernization. She kept pace with technology for more than 50 years.

As part of the tour, I read an essay by Professor James Sefton of California State University on why the Battleship Iowa museum matters. In it, Professor Sefton argues that one of the most important elements of education is continuity and the way we learn how we are related to earlier generations. This reflection helps us begin to understand how their decisions and actions affect ours and helps us contemplate what we have done with their legacy.

Professor Sefton (and I’ll forgive him for this, since he’s a history professor) also argues that history is the most important vehicle for securing continuity and enables us to educate ourselves and secure our heritage for the future. Here’s where I respectfully disagree: History is not the most important vehicle, relationships are. History is the collective story of people and their relationships, that’s why I find it so fascinating.

Of course, this made me think about our collective work — our decisions and actions and what our legacy will be that future generations of Iowans will experience. I regularly think about a future Vice President for Extension and Outreach (someday way in the future) and hope that my decisions and actions today will make his or her job easier and more productive. A legacy is essentially a gift handed through time from the past to the future. It’s a vision, a hope, and a commitment rolled up into a series of actions and decisions and delivered years later. Those sailors serving aboard this battleship had a vision of a strong IOWA. So do we. 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.

Strong Iowa

EOADV15-37C-messageplatform400wAccording to Simon Sinek, organizations and the people within them know what they do, and many know how they do it, but very few know why they do what they do. Why does Extension and Outreach exist? What’s our purpose? Why do we get out of bed in the morning?

Simon Sinek’s model for inspirational leadership starts with what he calls a golden circle, and “Why?” is in the middle of that circle. A leadership expert, Sinek says it’s all about purpose. According to Sinek, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. If you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.” Sinek’s work is based in neurobiology and it explains a lot about how we approach our work and what inspires us to take action.

So what do we believe in ISU Extension and Outreach? What’s in our golden circle?

  • WHY? We want a strong Iowa.
  • HOW? We are everywhere for Iowans. We serve as a 99-county campus, connecting the needs of Iowans with Iowa State University research and resources.
  • WHAT? We provide education and partnerships designed to solve today’s problems and prepare for the future.

When we start with why – a strong Iowa – our purpose is clear. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. See Simon Sinek’s TED talk.

Better Men and Women

“Extension work is not intended primarily to make better crops and animals, but better men and women.” — M.C. Burritt, Director, Cornell University Extension, 1922

When I was with the Department of Defense, we continually were reminded that our job was to serve as “defenders of the Constitution.” That’s heady stuff but makes sense, since DOD’s mission is to deter war and to protect the security of our country. However, there’s more than one way to preserve democracy. In ISU Extension and Outreach we can serve in this role by cultivating informed and engaged citizens. I urge you to consider whether we’re taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Too often we tend to undersell ourselves. We say we’re just providing education or we’re merely a neutral source of information. But we are so much more. The only thing that separates us from a robust and dynamic future is our view of ourselves, our institution and its colleges, our participants, and our role in connecting them.

Remember our “Young Iowans Speak” forum in 2014? We wanted to engage the 18- to 35-year-olds we weren’t seeing in our programs, so we went to them. They said they wanted us to be their lifelong partner for retooling, reinvention, and reawakening. They believed that Iowa State should act as a resource to society and as a co-learner with citizens. They said ISU Extension and Outreach could help them find their “true north” as they seek personal and professional satisfaction and success for their communities. Sounds like they want us to help them become informed and engaged citizens.

That’s exactly what we’re doing when we focus on building the capacity of Iowans. We relentlessly pursue creating remarkable experiences and delivering value. We engage with Iowans in real time and work on issues they care about. We create better men and women for a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Fair Winds and Following Seas

This week found me attending the naming ceremony for the fifth USS Iowa. It will be one of the Navy’s newest Virginia Class attack submarines. As someone who came here from the Pentagon, with two Air Force veteran parents, and a brother who was a career submariner in the Navy, these moments mean a lot to me.

I’ve mentioned a few times the important role Iowa has played in our nation and the world with our forward-thinking people. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus reminded me that ships bearing our state name also are similarly distinguished. The previous USS Iowa BB-61 was known as the Battleship of Presidents and carried Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to meet with Prime Minister Churchill and Josef Stalin. The first Iowa was a gunboat dating back to 1864. The second Iowa fired the first shot at Santiago Bay in the Spanish-American War.

Last Saturday, I was up in Forest City for Operation LZ to officially welcome back Iowa’s Vietnam and Vietnam era veterans and thank them. I learned about the distinguished service of some of Iowa’s veterans and their selflessness. Iowans have a long history of showing up, serving others, and being pretty humble about it. That’s certainly what I find with my colleagues and partners with Extension and Outreach, too.

As summer fair and field day season winds down and fall programs gear up, it may be easy to feel overwhelmed with all we have to do. Maybe it’s the nature of extension work, or maybe it’s our desire to give our all to help Iowans. I understand that, but I also know that along with meeting the needs of Iowans, we have to take care of ourselves. Vietnam veteran and POW Larry Spencer, speaking at Operation LZ, said that when you get down, remember if there’s a doorknob on your side of the door, it’s a good day. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Here’s to Bright Days

Thanks to recent rainy mornings and later day sunshine, an old song lyric has been playing in my head (thank you, Johnny Nash): “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.” (And yes, it’s at about this point in the song that my children start rolling their eyes.)

With summer two-thirds gone, field day season in full swing, Community Gardens popping, 4-H camps and activities in rain and mud, and several more county fairs and the Iowa State Fair still to go,  ISU Extension and Outreach is caught up in a whirlwind of activity across the state. In addition, we’re dealing with both the farm and the human side of avian influenza. And let’s not forget the emerald ash borer. The insect pest has been found in 26 counties and that number will increase. It all certainly can feel overwhelming, particularly when you throw in Iowa summer heat indices in the 100s, deluges of rain and mud, and trying to keep up with all that email back in the office.

I encourage you to give yourself a moment to step back and to see clearly what are (and what really aren’t) obstacles in your way. Because even with the rain, the heat, and musical earworms, ISU Extension and Outreach is still the #BestJobEver. Thank you for your long hours, hard work, patience, and unending dedication as you provide research-based education and continue this lifelong partnership with the people of Iowa. We have many bright days ahead. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.
Learn more about ISU Extension and Outreach at the 2015 Iowa State Fair.