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.

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.

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

That Which Must Not Be Named

Happy New Year!

There has been a lot of chatter in social media about the coming extinction of Cooperative Extension. (What a great opener to follow my new year wishes, huh?)  It’s not the result of people contemplating what lies ahead in a new year. It’s not because in 2014 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act. This kind of talk tends to come up now and again as people come to grips with change. How much longer will people seek out extension when they can be online 24/7? How will we meet the challenges of the future?  What will we need to do differently?  I’m glad to see this being discussed.

One of the people taking about it is Jim Langcuster (the “ExtensionGuy” on Twitter), a retired news and public affairs specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. He compares extension to a dinosaur and says that to avoid extinction, extension must become a “bona fide digital delivery system” with extension educators as technical professionals. (Read his blog post.)

We’d be fools not to pay attention to this challenge. However, I don’t think extension is facing a precipice where we must go completely digital or go home. True, people want easier access to information – and the research in library science points that out more and more. But they also want an “experience,” which is hard to have with only a digital presence. We need to enhance our digital access while focusing the experience of extension for our constituents. A great example of that was a recent Farm Bill meeting I attended in Blairstown. Ryan Drollette did a great job of combining a face-to-face experience, which allowed him to tailor the pace and content, with the online resources including our Ag Decision Maker.

We need to talk about these challenges and how we do our work. If for no other reason than it’s good to do what my kids and friends call “naming our Voldemorts.” In the Harry Potter movies, the bad guy gains power through fear, even the fear of saying his name. We all have Voldemorts, fears we are too nervous to even name, and these fears prevent us from really exploring how we more fully address and resolve them. However, we diminish their fear-inducing power when we can name them. Let’s name this Voldemort and accept the challenges that change brings by focusing on how we provide access to education and develop meaningful lifelong partnerships to create significant impact for Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Whatever the future holds

Last week I blogged about listening with purpose and how in 2014 we heard from our partners as well as young Iowans, ages 18 to 35. Well, we also listened to really young Iowans, elementary school age. We asked them what they thought the future would be like, and oh boy, they told us. Imagine flying cars and jet packs and travelling through time to give dinosaurs a second chance. On a more serious level they talked about becoming scientists, taking care of the environment, and embracing differences.

Now some of the things they predict may sound far-fetched to you (fish ham?), but I’m old enough to recall when a hand-held portable “communicator” was Star Trek science fiction and now most of us carry smart phones around, or when the idea of GPS-driven farm equipment would have been unthinkable, just to name a couple.

The point is — some things change and change rapidly and will keep changing as we watch the future unfold.  We need to accept that, prepare for it, and yes, even figure out how to embrace it.  And some things — like a simple desire that we all be kind to each other — never change.  We’ll hang on to some of those no matter what comes our way.

So, here’s to the future. May Iowa’s children continue to inspire us with their dreams and wisdom, may we stay open to the possibilities, and may the squirrels never organize and attack.  Iowa State University will be ready to serve as a lifelong partner — whatever the future holds. See you there.

—  Cathann

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


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:

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