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.

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.

Sustaining the Future

Coalitions, partnerships, and collaborations are built one relationship at a time. It may be relatively easy to bring a number of people and groups together around an issue. However, getting them to stay and work together is another matter — even though there is good evidence that people working together are better off and more successful than people working alone. They’ll have more ideas, develop more capacity to get things done, and feed off one another’s energy to keep the effort moving. If it’s possible, concerted action is almost always more effective in the long run than one person or organization going it alone.

To that end, we have started our Partnership Perspectives meetings around the state to bring together small groups of key partners to learn more about our positioning and collaboration with programs. Invitees include mayors, city council members, community college presidents, AEA directors, hospital foundation directors, Farm Bureau regional directors, chamber of commerce directors, extension council members, and other leaders. We are discussing their past involvement with ISU Extension and Outreach, as well as gathering their ideas on future opportunities to partner and further mutual goals.

The case for partnership in community-based education is compelling. The challenges facing communities across Iowa are such that solutions must be found and scaled up. Many of us must respond to increasingly complex challenges, usually with restricted budgets, so finding ways we can maximize impacts by leveraging the extraordinary problem-solving abilities of partners, and the reach and the complementary resources partnership can bring, is critical.

It’s worth noting that partnerships don’t just happen. Clear management allows partnerships to flourish and partners can focus on programs rather than the details and processes. We also should ask ourselves how well our organizational culture supports our ability to sustain effective partnerships. According to Katie Fry Hester, a senior associate with The Partnering Initiative:

Organizations that have historically operated using transactional relationships find it hard to relinquish control and are resistant to change; especially without the stimulus of a high profile success or failure. For others, while ‘humility isn’t the natural currency of most big organizations, there is a genuine recognition that the organization can’t go it alone.’ The research identified a number of key elements conducive to an effective partnering culture — humility, equity, transparency and adaptability.

It’s our relationships – among our staff and with our clients and partners – that make what we do worthwhile. Your efforts – small and large – touch and help many people. Staying focused on what sustains partnerships also sustains our communities, our organization, and our shared future. See you there.

— Cathann

We’re Here for the Long Haul

“We are in for a very, very long haul. … I am asking for everything you have to give. We will never give up …”
– Jill Ruckelshaus, (former commissioner, 1980-1983, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights)

Through Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University is embedded in communities across Iowa and able to stay for the “long haul” — and this, I believe, is the anchor of the three key attributes of Extension and Outreach featured in this year’s annual report. We are not like a number of programs that get started and then are gone. Perhaps after a year or two into a new venture some issues arise that need additional support or research and development. In these scenarios, ISU Extension and Outreach is uniquely positioned to do what is necessary — because we are still there. We continue to partner, monitor, and provide new resources, research, and education to assist Iowans.

Our annual report videos share examples of our long-haul approach:

  • When severe weather in eastern Iowa this summer resulted in extensive crop damage, ISU Extension took action, bringing together crop producers to discuss the crop and livestock situation and emergency programs available. Long after the immediate disaster, ISU Extension and Outreach has remained involved in solving grain storage issues, cleaning up storm damage, and dealing with issues as they arise.
  • Since 1975, ISU Extension and Outreach has been providing continuing education and professional development to Iowa’s municipal clerks, secretaries, treasurers, recorders, and other local officials. Glamorous? No. Essential to the day-to-day operation of Iowa municipalities? Yes.
  • Our work in conservation starts with relationships, helping people understand that conserving the soil is a long-term proposition. Extension takes the research-based information and puts it in a format that farmers can believe, trust, and understand — so they can put it into place in their operations.

Extension and Outreach professionals are able to anticipate trends and catalyze opportunities because we are part of the ongoing life of the communities in Iowa.  Through Extension and Outreach programs, Iowa State University stays for the long haul. See you there.

— Cathann

Mission Drift

Last week, I got out to a few counties and met several of you. I can report that Harrison County children prefer chocolate ice cream and rocketry and are holding up fairly well with the extended impact of the flood. In Benton County, our tremendous volunteers made it possible for the Fair to go on in the midst of substantial damage from the straight-line winds. In Greene County, the heat proved too much for some events like the greased pig contest, but the cribbage tournament went on as planned.

At all these events, a lot of people talked to me about their concerns and asked me about my vision and intentions for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Iowans want to know what we plan to do.

Iowa State University Extension builds partnerships and provides research-based learning opportunities to improve quality of life in Iowa. Stated another way: we support healthy people, environments, and economies. These phrases are today’s way of stating our land-grant mission. We have to stay true to our mission, our purpose — helping Iowans make positive changes in their lives. Otherwise we’ll drift.

The Democracy Cell Project says mission drift occurs when external or internal events cause the organization to depart from purpose and core values, often in the interest of survival: “The organization limps along, attempting to do and be everything for everyone, with no limits, no parameters, and no focus of attention. … In time, the lack of a focused purpose and the collapsed consensus kills all pretense of excellence. Excellence itself can survive only in an organization committed to a strong purpose.”

Mission drift doesn’t “just happen” — it’s the logical, inevitable result of an organization losing its focus. To avoid mission drift, we have to be intentional. So here are my intentions:

1.     Iowa State University Extension and Outreach will create an educated citizenry and engines for innovation.

  • We will lead Iowa in sustaining a commitment to educational equity and access.
  • We will raise the profile of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach across the university, throughout the state, across the nation, and around the world.
  • We will collaborate across the university to ensure that extension outreach and economic development are central activities at Iowa State.

2.     Iowa State University Extension and Outreach will deliver on the land-grant university commitment to Iowans by providing public goods and services.

  • Iowa State University will provide educational goods and services that benefit many, but would not be available to everyone if individuals had to provide them.
  • Extension and Outreach activities will promote efficiency and economic equity. 

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach provides education to serve Iowans’ common concerns and our shared future. That’s the best of intentions. See you there.


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