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.

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.


The Real Golden Age

If you’ve been around Extension and Outreach for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard someone refer to the past as if it were the “Golden Age of Extension.”   I know ever since I was a 4-H Educator in Benton and Tama counties, I’ve had this impression that once upon a time extension was characterized by peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During that time, we assume working in extension was easy and wonderful, with plenty of resources, and the unflagging appreciation of the public. But when was that, exactly? Was it a hundred years ago as extension began? When early extension pioneers made their rounds by horse and buggy with little value placed on a university which few citizens understood? Given the struggles those educators had just communicating, not to mention encouraging adoption of research-based techniques – I wonder. Maybe it was in the 1930s — the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? Maybe not. How about the 1940s and 1950s — after all, isn’t that when Norman Rockwell painted that iconic painting of the County Agent? Oh, wait — with the recovery following World War II? Hmmmm.

I do believe there is a golden age of Extension — it is before us, right now. At no other time have we had the resources and technology at our disposal, the ease of communication and networking, or the recognition of the importance of access to the educational resources of our university.

Think about it: Our faculty and staff are about 1,000 strong, working with families and youth, farmers and agribusiness professionals, and businesses and communities all across the state. Each year nearly 1 million people directly benefit from our educational programs. We’re communicating with each other, our partners, and our clients face-to-face, as well as using computers, iPads, and smart phones. We can videoconference, teleconference, or still meet for coffee at the Ivy Bake Shoppe. Last year Iowans connected virtually with us through more than 1.5 million website visits and downloads of educational materials and courses. Can you imagine how our early educators would marvel at our technology and envy the resources we have in our program portfolio?

We must continue to build on this work, to widen the circle of our reach throughout the state, to live up to the legacy and the dreams of those extension educators who preceded us. Every dollar that Iowans invest in Extension and Outreach pays back dividends — when entrepreneurs start businesses, families make healthy choices, youth become leaders for the future, and communities become better places to live. We are lucky enough to be stewards of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach when a golden age is upon us. See you there.

— Cathann

Carrying the Best Parts Forward

Becky BrayThis week’s message is from guest contributor Becky Bray, Scott County Extension Director.

Some people are still feeling the effects of the changes, uncertainty, and stress of the 2009 reorganization. Although we have moved on in many ways, there is still some feeling that the “old” Extension is gone and we don’t know what the new Extension really is. I’ve felt, and noticed in others, some negative feelings at times and it hasn’t set well with me. This is an organization that has been important — at times even crucial — in the lives of our clientele, and we want to continue to serve. How do we best do that with volunteers and staff who still feel unsettled and uncertain?

In my search for ideas, I found appreciative inquiry, which notes that all organizations have some good things going on and that we should focus on those good things. Rather than look for problems (and, therefore, find them), appreciative inquiry encourages organizations to find what they’ve done well and figure out how and why those things have been successful.

It occurs to me that in Extension and Outreach, we have written “success stories” for years. We have been told that they are used for communicating with legislators and stakeholders about our good work so they will continue to support our efforts. If we follow the ideas in appreciate inquiry, we would write those stories and share them with each other. We would learn what works and what we should feel good about in order to do even better.

Two of the assumptions made in appreciative inquiry resonate strongly with me: People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known). And, if we carry parts of the past forward, it should be what is best about the past.

Moving past the 2009 reorganization was part of the discussions at our annual conference in March. People acknowledged some lingering negativity, but also expressed the need to get past those feelings to create a more positive organizational culture moving forward. Becky makes a strong case for this approach – appreciating what we’ve done well and understanding the reasons for our success. We also recognize there is much for us to be positive about, we are carrying the best parts forward.  See you there.

— Cathann

Understanding the Elephant

This summer, I asked a number of our Extension and Outreach colleagues to answer a few questions:

  • What kind of organization do we want to be?
  • What do you think is our organization’s purpose?
  • What do we aspire to bring to the world?
  • What kind of a culture do you think we need within Extension and Outreach to accomplish that?
  • What will the organization look, feel, and sound like if we are embodying that mission and culture?
  • How should we measure success?

Yes, I know. Just a few light questions for a summer afternoon. However, they had a lot to say — a couple even included reading assignments for me. Extension people are always focused on helping others learn.

Overall they expressed a good amount of excitement about the future. However, I had several “aha” moments as I read their responses. They voiced a lot of agreement about who we are and what we do. That’s good news.  But they also noted tensions as we contemplate the future: trust vs. risk in the organization, the delicate balance of our research-base with local needs, delivering information vs. providing education, responding vs. being proactive, and being one-way information providers vs. working in partnership. Several comments addressed communications as well as our organizational complexity. I’ll be sharing more of their insights in future blogs and want to thank each of them for taking the time to thoughtfully respond.

Their responses reminded me of the fable about the blind men and the elephant. Together they all come upon an elephant, but each person encounters only one part. One person touches the trunk, another the tail, a tusk, a leg, and so on. Each person experiences only a fraction of the elephant with no concept of the entire animal. But as they share what they learned, they come to understand that the elephant is the collection of their experiences.

I’ve heard feedback that a few people still are confused about our vision and unclear where we are headed, so this year I plan to work harder to communicate about the kind of organization we want to be and the vision that we articulated at our Leadership Summit. Our renewed emphasis in professional development will give us an opportunity to consider our organizational culture and how we fulfill our vision. I also intend to stay focused on securing more resources, working with our leadership team to strategically address gaps, strengthening our evaluation processes and metrics so we can better report our impacts, and listening closely to our partners and constituents.

Seeing the “whole elephant” can be complicated in a complex organization such as ISU Extension and Outreach. But if we are willing to have patience, focus, and listen to each other, we will come to a clear understanding together. See you there.

— Cathann

Full Brains on Continuous Beta

One of my favorite Gary Larson Far Side cartoons features a classroom full of adult students. A student with a rather small head raises his hand and asks the teacher, “May I be excused? My brain is full.”  (Just Google “gary larson brain is full images” to see the cartoon.)

Perhaps you felt like that student after reviewing the learning objects, meeting with your team, and participating in the synchronous part of our annual conference. I’m guessing Extension IT had a headache from the technical difficulties we encountered with Ann Adrian’s keynote. (Her recorded presentation, script, and slides can now be found on the conference website.)

In her keynote, Ann asks us if we are ready to perform, produce, learn, connect, communicate, and make a difference in a “continuous beta environment.” The term comes from software development. Beta software is usable, but not completely tested and finalized. All the bugs or kinks haven’t been figured out yet. The advantage of operating in continuous beta is that you can change quickly, allowing for continued development.

Ann acknowledges that continuous beta isn’t appropriate for mission critical systems. However, it may make sense for some of our work in Extension and Outreach. We’re trying to make a difference while working in a complex environment — with information coming at us quickly and profusely from almost limitless sources. A system that operates in continuous beta is agile and better able to listen and assess needs in new ways, delve into multifaceted problems, and try solutions to discover what works.

As our very full brains absorb all the information presented during annual conference, how will we use what we’ve learned? When we think in terms of continuous beta, improving our ability to anticipate and adapt to change isn’t as overwhelming. We can try new applications of technology to improve communication and programming, and to enhance how we address our signature issues. We can learn together to improve ourselves, our teams, and our organization. See you there.

— Cathann

Communication Breakdowns

As I’ve said before, my children are now past the children stage and really in the older teen or youngish adult stage. Periodically, we actually speak in person to each other, which usually consists of me asking questions and them grunting responses or staring blankly at me. However, most of our communications these days are by text. My children can text at the rate of about six words per second and, well, I can’t. As a result, sometimes our text conversations are a bit one-sided, like this:

Daughter: Can I go to Trina’s house?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: Mom?

Daughter: You there?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Yes, you’re there, or yes, I can go to Trina’s house?

Daughter: Mom?

Me: Yes.

Daughter: Ok. Byeeeeeee.

After one conversation when I unwittingly gave permission for my daughter to dye her hair purple, I immediately called her phone number to clarify. No answer. Seriously? She just texted and now was far enough from her phone that she couldn’t hear it ringing? When I finally tracked her down, her response was, “Oh, I thought we were done communicating.”

This makes me ponder how, with all our technology, real communication can be tricky at times — especially if you’re in a situation where you need to address difficult topics or discuss hard-to-grasp ideas. George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I guess he knew my daughter.

For this year’s virtual annual conference, a whole track of learning objects about communications was compiled, ranging from creating social media communities to understanding organizational communication and keeping communication open and organized. If you didn’t get a chance to view these learning objects, the conference site is still open and available as an ongoing resource. As for the purple hair, I’ll save that story for a future blog on choosing your battles. See you there.

— Cathann

Best Kept Secrets

For years, some of our colleagues here in Iowa and many more throughout the nation have remarked that extension is a “best kept secret.” Just last week, Representative Bruce Bearinger referred to us that way when tweeting about our hotlines.  Type “extension best kept secret” into Google and most of the top 10 results refer to extension work. (The others deal primarily with hair extensions, where I imagine a secret is a good thing.) But being a secret is nothing to be proud of for us. I’ve heard the reasons why for years — we tend to be busy and don’t like to promote ourselves.  Most extension professionals don’t like the spotlight.  It’s hard to fully understand all the variety of work we do.

To reverse this situation, we need a game plan. We need equipment, drills, plays, and strategies. (Sort of sounds like football, but then again, the Super Bowl was just last Sunday.) We need a playbook and our Organizational Advancement team is preparing one right now. You’ll receive your copy in time for Extension and Outreach Week, March 24-30.

The Advancement Playbook is a guide for our organizational marketing efforts. It contains plans to promote and advance Extension and Outreach and advocate to external partners about our educational mission and program impact. The Playbook will make it easier for all players in our system — statewide, on campus, and within counties and regions — to function as one team with one game message: We are a community-based education unit providing the state with educational goods and services that benefit many.

And therein lies the trick, which a playbook is designed to help address — to sort through the clutter, learn fast, and communicate faster. See you there.

— Cathann

Creative? Who, me?

Michael Michalko says creativity can be learned, and he should know — he is a creativity expert, writing books, leading workshops, and facilitating think tanks on the subject. The key to creativity is in how we are taught to think.

In an interview with Management Consulting News, he said the average person thinks repetitively, based on past experience. However, creative people think productively. When they face a problem, they think about the different ways to look at it, rather than taking the same old approach.

He’s written a book called “Cracking Creativity.” His basic premise is that creative people “see what no one else is seeing.” To be a fluent thinker means coming up with a lot of ideas, and to be a flexible thinker means looking for new ways to think about a subject. He identifies a five-step process:

Defer judgment. Get your juices flowing, but wait to decide which ideas are worth developing.

Generate lots of ideas. Most of your ideas may end up being discarded, but all it takes is one or two good ones to make a difference.

List ideas as they arise. A good idea can disappear the minute you get distracted by your daily routines. Keep a written record of your ideas and ruminations.

Keep on tweaking. Elaborate and improve on the ideas you and your coworkers have generated. Look for novel combinations, surprises, and new perspectives.

Do something different. Good ideas need time to incubate. Tap into your subconscious. Take a walk. Visit an art gallery. Then return to thinking about the problem and see what new ideas emerge.

The deadline for the Vice President for Extension and Outreach Initiatives is March 2. I encourage you to think productively as you prepare proposals. Use this funding opportunity to try something new. We want to thrive as we

  • invest in meaningful partnerships,
  • refine a system to collectively identify emerging and current needs,
  • develop and support a structure for professional development, and
  • develop and support systems to improve internal communications, coordination, and collaboration.

See you there.

— Cathann

Knowledge That Works

Well over a decade ago, the tagline for ISU Extension was Knowledge That Works. I was part of the committee that promoted it, and many of us felt that it identified the core of ISU Extension and what we brought to the citizens of Iowa. Then something called the Internet and the Food Network showed up.

The Internet and cable television were total game-changers for extension because they provided 24-hour immediate access to information to anyone who could figure out how to use them. Suddenly, all the questions that used to come to the local extension office started to be answered by “Ask Jeeves” and eventually, Google. Information about food became accessible around the clock and it was entertaining too. So, if everyone has access to similar kinds of information – what exactly is unique about what ISU Extension and Outreach has to offer? If we’re no longer operating within an “expert” model, what model do we use?

showing heifers at Story County Fair

Check out this photo for clues to what I think the answer is: That’s Jamie Flynn in the pink shirt, me, and Casey Allison at the Story County Fair. Jamie and Casey were kind enough to share their showmanship expertise with me in preparation for the State Fair. Clearly, I am not the expert in this situation. Marshall Ruble connected me with these young women, who were patient teachers.

ISU Extension and Outreach is people making connections with people and somehow changing for the better. Sometimes, extension educates citizens. Sometimes, citizens educate extension. The reason ISU Extension and Outreach can continue to be about knowledge long after that tagline is that we’re not just about information. We’re about people. That’s work that matters. See you there.

*Incidentally, the next day, Mary (the heifer I’m holding) was named Supreme Champion Breeding Heifer for the Story County Fair.  Congratulations to Jamie.


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