Sneakers and Simplicity

With colder weather creeping in, I’ve switched from riding my bicycle to running on the track in State Gym. I decided I needed a new pair of shoes, since my sneakers (yes, I call them that, even though my children roll their eyes) had seen better days. I stopped at the shoe store and found myself staring at a wall full of fluorescent footwear. Lots of them. Which ones are for running? I asked. The sales people pointed at the wall and began to describe extensive technical and feature information. They pointed out information cards next to some shoes with more details about stabilization and pronation. There were even QR codes that could take me to a mobile version of the brand’s website so I could learn more about the specifications of the DayGlo lime model.

Huh? Um. I allotted around 20 minutes to get in, buy some sneakers, and get out and on my way. I run.  Not very fast. Usually inside. And don’t want my feet or wallet to hurt. What shoe fits that?

A recent Harvard Business Review study looked at what keeps people coming back to a brand and found more than price, more than snazzy accessories, or high tech gizmos it was “decision simplicity” — the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information and confidently and efficiently weigh their options. What consumers want is simplicity.

It made me wonder about the experience people have when they encounter Extension and Outreach. How easy is it to gather and understand information about our programs? If someone has never been part of an Extension and Outreach program before and stumbles across us in person or online, can he or she quickly learn about our programs and how to get involved? How many forms do people have to fill out to participate? How quickly do they get what they need and get on their way? To keep the citizens we currently serve and to reach those we don’t yet serve, we will have to remove obstacles and reduce the effort citizens must expend to engage with us. See you there.

— Cathann

Taking Care of Our Future Self

“I am the designer of my own catastrophe.”

I don’t know the original source of that quote, but I like its basic truth. What we do, or don’t do, can indeed bring about catastrophic results — or at least a less than ideal outcome. Skip going to the dentist long enough and you’ll have a mouthful of cavities or worse. Don’t pay your parking fines and you’ll end up in court. Many catastrophes can be averted if we act wisely now to make things better for later.

Daniel Goldstein talks about this concept as the battle between a person’s present self and future self. Goldstein is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in New York City and an honorary research fellow at London Business School in the UK. He notes that every day we make decisions that have good or bad consequences for our future selves. He helps people imagine themselves over time so they make smart choices for their futureselves as they consider long-term finances, retirement, and other decisions. (See his Ted Talk.)

In Extension and Outreach, our present self was taking care of our future self when we gathered together for our leadership summit last fall. What we accomplished at that summit paved the way for our strategic plan, our business plan, and the reorganizing of our central administration — all actions that will help ensure our long-term viability and relevance to the people of Iowa.

Another way that today, we take care of our future is through our town hall meetings.  Terry Maloy and I hosted the first meeting in Ames on Aug. 27, and I am pleased to report that the discussion highlighted areas of focus in which we have been able to make an impact, and that our partners value their relationships with us.  It is always interesting to hear perspectives from our colleagues outside of Iowa State University who have appreciated participating in our programs or have ideas for new initiatives based on best practices. 

We have four more town hall meetings scheduled: Atlantic, Sept. 10; Storm Lake, Sept. 17; Oskaloosa, Sept. 18; and Waterloo, Sept. 19. Rather than designing our own catastrophe, these thoughtful conversations are allowing us to take care of our future. The insights we will gain will allow us to better fulfill our core purpose — helping Iowans make better decisions through educational programs. And Iowa State will become the university that best serves its state. See you there.

— Cathann

Facing House Rock

Last fall, Doug Steele, director of extension at Montana State University, shared this story during the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) annual meeting.  I thought it was relevant for our work and asked Doug if I could share it.

If you have ever had the pleasure of rafting the Gallatin River in Montana, then you know that there is a bend in the river that is the location of “House Rock.”  House Rock is appropriately named, because it is bigger than a house, and is great peril for rafters. Right before the curve in which House Rock resides, there is a calming straight of water that requires little paddling where one can enjoy the passing scenery. It is during this brief intermission that the rafting guide will warn you and your boating companions that House Rock is just around the corner.  The guide will tell your group that you have three choices:

1. You can operate independently of each other and surely hit the rock, which may send some of your party overboard.

2. You can paddle with all your strength and might, but not work together, and end up in the internal vortex that swirls around House Rock, waiting for someone to rescue you.

3. You can work together as a team, paddling together, following directions, and striving for the same goal — to successfully navigate around House Rock.

In terms of ISU Extension and Outreach, let’s choose to work together to face upcoming challenges, realizing that we all have a vested interest in our mutual success. Let’s welcome opportunities to carry forth research, educational programming, and engagement with Iowa State in all the counties. Let’s ensure that ISU Extension and Outreach will be relevant, viable, and necessary for years to come. Let’s face our House Rock together. See you there.

 — Cathann

What We Wish: More about Choices

Jiminy Cricket wished upon a star. Dorothy clicked the heels of her ruby red slippers. Many of us “make a wish” using wishbones, wishing wells, pennies “from heaven,” or birthday candles. Then we wait for our dreams to come true. Have you noticed that none of these methods work very well? That’s probably for the best — otherwise American Suburbia might be overrun with ponies.

According to the Rolling Stones, “you can’t always get what you want.” But the trouble is, we’re not very good at knowing what it is we really want anyway. There’s so much to choose from — the newest iPad vs. the not-quite-as-new iPad, the latest smart phone vs. the not-as-smart phone; not to mention all the choices online, at the movies, or in the jam aisle at the grocery store.

Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar offered selections of jams to demonstrate just how hard it can be to deal with making choices. In her book, “The Art of Choosing,” she states:

To choose means to turn ourselves to the future. It means to try to catch a glimpse of the next hour, the next year, or further still, and make a decision based on what we see. …

There is so much to consider, so much to bear responsibility for, it’s no surprise we sometimes long for an easier path. Choice draws power from its promise of almost infinite possibility, but what is possible is also what is unknown. …

Science can assist us in becoming more skillful choosers, but at its core, choice remains an art. To gain the most from it, we must embrace uncertainty and contradiction.

In ISU Extension and Outreach, our clients have to choose whether they wish to partake of our educational programs. We have to choose which educational programs to provide. But our choice becomes easier when we base our decisions on our fundamental principles and align with our key attributes — anticipating issues, acting in catalytic ways, and staying for the long haul. It’s both science, and art.

The rest of that Rolling Stones lyric goes like this: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” You can wish … and wait for your dreams to come true, or you can consider your priorities and choose to take action. See you there.

— Cathann

Just Jam? All about Choices

Many of us (especially in my generation) feel like we are constantly wandering through the midway at a large State Fair, with our senses assaulted by too much information. So many choices of what to read, what to listen to, where to go, what to do …

Maybe you’ve heard of the famous “jam study.” In 1995, Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth with samples of jams in a California gourmet market. Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to a group of six jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one jar of jam.

Here’s the interesting part. Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. But 30 percent of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.

That study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Professor Iyengar said last year, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.” Iyengar should know. She has a joint appointment in the Columbia Business School and the Department of Psychology and is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on choice.

Research also shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide. There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better.

So what might this mean for our clients and the educational programs we provide in Extension and Outreach? How many choices do they really want from us? How many choices should we be prepared to give them? Do they know what they want? Do we know what they need?

Perhaps we’d all be better off if we set priorities first.

As we move forward from our summit, we know our educational programs must be appropriate within the scope of our educational mission, and provide knowledge, instruction, or information. We know they also must be based strongly in research evidence, and/or be connected to ongoing research at Iowa State. Finally, we know that our educational programs must align the needs of Iowans with federal, land-grant system, and college and university priorities.

Let’s use what we know to develop the best educational programs that we can provide, and offer the choices that will best engage Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

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