Stay Curious

A few weeks ago Lyn Brodersen, our assistant vice president for Organizational Development, welcomed junior high and high school students who’d come to campus for the State Science and Technology Fair of Iowa. Here’s an excerpt from her remarks.

Continue exploring science as you prepare for your career. The basic principles of scientific investigation — experimentation, shaping hypotheses, testing theories — are the foundation for formal education and the world of work. When I was your age, I was fascinated by botany, biology, math, and languages. Those topics encouraged me, as a college student, to engage in history and education, and to share the knowledge I had found with those around me. I explored literature, philosophy, and political science as well. Ultimately, the thing that bound these differing interests together was curiosity.

What changed for me along the way? The complexity of the problems with which I grappled. The culture and habits of the people around whom I lived. The context with which I approached issues and problems. What never changed? The fact that I was curious. I never wanted to stop hypothesizing, experimenting, proving, learning, and sharing. Because the one thing that no one can ever take away from you is your education. The ability to think, share, create, imagine, talk with other people, and solve problems for the benefit of all is a gift of infinite value.

Take advantage of your interest in science. Make it apply to other interests as well. Don’t stop experimenting, learning, and creating. Don’t stop sharing your dreams and approaches with others. And, above all, maintain your curiosity about our world for the rest of your life.

Lyn’s advice is appropriate for all of us. We should always believe in our ability to learn – and stay curious. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Remember to use #STRONGIOWA and share your stories on Twitter.

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

Plan for Friction

We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but friction plays a pretty big role in our lives –both positive and negative. Friction is part of what makes it hard to get my bike up the next hill (take note those of you planning to ride RAGBRAI), but it’s also what makes it possible to stop my bike before the railroad tracks. While we can reduce or minimize friction, it’s always present.

So it’s not surprising that when engineers design engines they plan for friction. They know that when an engine runs, unexpected stuff will happen. Determining the exact cause of the problem can be complicated. Seasoned mechanics often will combine computerized diagnostics with their own knowledge and experience to figure out the issue. It’s just part of the design process. There’s no drama involved. We could learn from that approach.

When stuff happens in life, things get more complex. Friction in human relationships or endeavors is more difficult to understand. Maybe we don’t like drama, but most of us will respond in similar ways. Often, we increase complexity even more by seeking more information and conducting more analyses. That’s not all bad, but it can spiral into levels of complexity, including organizational complexity — more meetings, decision delays, and specialized teams. We add layers of policy and processes intended to address the complexity, but it could make it worse. Essentially, we replace clarity with detail. As a result, activity increases and so does confusion. At the same time, trust decreases and so does effectiveness. It’s hard to stay focused on staying clear and focused when your legs feel like lead weights from trying to pump up that last hill.

Just because we encounter friction doesn’t mean we’re headed in the wrong direction or need to abandon the project. We rarely will have the ideal conditions we might wish for. Stuff will happen, so plan for friction. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Building a Bike Shed

How many resources does an organization expend to make a decision? You’d think that an organization would spend more time and money on decisions about big, costly, complex issues and less time on simpler issues with smaller price tags. But it often doesn’t work that way.

In his book Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, (which has been quoted and commented on by many bloggers and Wikipedia editors), C. Northcote Parkinson describes a committee that met to discuss the construction of a new atomic power plant. The agenda included three items: approving the plans for the plant, discussing a new bicycle shed for employees, and the refreshment expenses of the Welfare Committee. The committee spent two and a half minutes discussing the highly complex power plant, 45 minutes debating the bicycle shed, and over an hour furiously debating the refreshments. That matter eventually was left unresolved and deferred to a further meeting.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive, and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. A bike shed, on the other hand, is easily understood; almost anyone can build one of those over a weekend. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, some people will seize the chance to put their fingerprints on the project to demonstrate that they are paying attention.

Parkinson summed this up as his Law of Triviality: “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” Essentially, Parkinson’s metaphor raises the issue of noticing when governance gets reduced to sharing “our two-cents worth” and that we need not argue every feature just because we know enough to do so. It also may be true that the amount of noise generated by a change is inversely proportional to the complexity of the change.

Simplest problems can take up most of our time. When we’re facing a decision, it might not hurt to first ask whether we’re dealing with a bike shed or an atomic reactor, so that we give the decision the attention it deserves. If it’s a simple issue, let’s not get bogged down by minutia. But if it’s a complex issue, let’s make sure we have all the information we need so we truly understand what we’re talking about and can make the best decision. See you there.

— Cathann

Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick Two

If you’re familiar with Spaghetti Westerns, then you’ve probably heard of the old Clint Eastwood movie, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” No matter what you think of the movie, you must admit it has a great title. The title might even be better known than the movie. As I write this, I can even hear that theme song in my head, although I can’t recall much about the movie itself. 

There’s a variation on that title that’s popular as well — “The Good, the Fast, and the Cheap.” It’s been called a marketing rubric, a project management rule, even the designer’s holy triangle. It goes like this:

People want things good, fast, and cheap. But unfortunately, you can have only two of the three.
• Good (or high quality) and fast isn’t cheap.
• Fast and cheap isn’t high quality.
• High quality and cheap takes time.

The “good, fast, and cheap” mantra is a sign of the complexity that is present in any project — or any educational program. Of the three, we should aim for the good — high quality in our educational programs and materials — and understand that getting it will either take time or cost money. Then we need to make the appropriate commitment. See you there.

— Cathann

Focus, Filter, and Forget

My son Payden was home from college this summer, taking some courses online and helping out around the house. When he’s home, my favorite part is that he cooks, as in really good dinners. My not-so-favorite part is that he cleans with far less enthusiasm than he has for cooking.  I suspect it may be to get his mother to do it, but loading the dishwasher is a complex challenge he has yet to master. So he crowds in as many dirty dishes as he possibly can fit inside and still be able to close the door. However, when dishes and glasses and pots and pans are jammed together that tightly, nothing gets very clean. An overloaded dishwasher defeats the purpose.

Loading a home dishwasher may be a low-level example, but dealing with complex issues within complex systems is tough. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber call these “wicked” problems and define them as “predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved – and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble.”  If you imagine ISU Extension and Outreach as a really big dishwasher, do we sometimes try to fill it too full, to do too much — so we aren’t as effective as we could be? How do you get things done in a complex organization like ours, dealing with complex issues?

First, focus. To begin breaking down complexity, focus on your purpose. Emphasize the principles and values around how Extension and Outreach operates. Make sure people understand their roles and purpose; then they can innovate because they have context. If something is high value and easy — that’s an easy win — do it.  If some activity is high value and complex, it will likely take more time and effort, and that’s probably where we should focus. 

Next, filter. Some problems become unfathomable when we set short deadlines for finding a solution. Some problems take decades to resolve. Start by setting realistic time frames. We don’t have to tackle the whole problem all at once. If something is low value to our organization, and low complexity, it can probably move down the priority list. Finally, get comfortable forgetting some things. If we already know that something is so complex it will never be solved, AND it has low value to our organization, maybe it’s time to direct our attention elsewhere.

The most important quality in confronting complexity is persistence and focus. It’s about being comfortable with using our values and purpose to guide our work. See you there.

— Cathann

Untangling Complexity

If your family is like ours, then Thanksgiving week involved not just turkey, family, and football, but one or more of you may have found yourselves untangling strings of holiday lights, unpacking ornaments, or hanging wreaths or other holiday trappings.

Things got problematic in our household this year. When we opened the attic to retrieve decorations we stashed during the move, I could have sworn the boxes multiplied. When did we end up with that many ornaments? And, since we are now in a new house, it was unclear where decorations would go. There was quite a hotly contested campaign between the two youngest Kresses regarding optimal placement of the tree and how to hang stockings from a very different mantel. This all left me wondering: when did celebrating and decorating get so complicated?

Ron Ashkenas, author of “Simply Effective,” contends that this happens to organizations, too. We start out with a simple goal, basic product, or manageable structure and over time, it gets more complex. We change the way our organization is structured for a variety of reasons and we have to relearn our roles. We have a proliferation in programs and services as our organization grows, which makes focusing and thus managing the whole even more difficult. As we use new and varying approaches to solve problems, we add on processes or expectations that now also have to be learned and managed.

The same conclusion I reached in decorating for the holidays applies for organizations. It’s probably wise to step back and consider if there are ways to simplify and streamline. This summer a committee of council members, Iowa Association of County Extension Councils leadership, and extension staff and administrators took a thoughtful and pragmatic look at our partnership and drafted a new memorandum of understanding. Our County Services administrative unit coordinated the effort. This MOU outlines the partnership between ISU Extension and Outreach and the county extension districts, which extension councils represent. We’ll be gathering feedback on the draft MOU from council members, staff, and other citizens. We expect to have a final agreement by next April.

The MOU is a legal agreement authorized by the Code of Iowa. However, its impact reaches far beyond the legal necessity of the document. The new MOU carries forward the work that began with our leadership summit and continues through our new strategic plan and the reorganization of Extension and Outreach administration. Every organization includes complexity: technologies and procedures, program and staff development processes, and intricate partnerships with partners and customers. All of these are complex. But we amplify the complexity when we add unnecessary layers, ambiguous roles, confused accountability, slow and unclear decisions, garbled communications, or lack of focus. Rather than bash complexity, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we are adding to it. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. The draft of the MOU and the archived Nov. 26 webinar are online at

Subscribe to “See You There”

Enter your email address: