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.

On Our Watch

I have a terrific job. Not only do I represent ISU Extension and Outreach and all of our dedicated workforce, but as a person with an unquenchable sense of curiosity, I find myself in all kinds of situations and environments, from driving a half-million-dollar combine last fall (which blew me away with its technology) to observing cutting edge research that I can barely wrap my head around most of the time. I highly value these opportunities to learn about the latest discoveries and to apply that learning in ways that enhance our communities.

Recently I was talking about organizational culture with some industry partners and one of them handed me a little card. It unfolded into a slightly larger document entitled, “The Courage to Care.”

“I have the courage to care. Worn with a lion’s pride, it means those I work with will have my back, and I will have theirs. I pledge to shield myself and my team from harm. I will take action to keep them safe, by fixing an unsafe situation, addressing an unsafe behavior, or stopping the line. In turn, I will have the courage to accept the same actions from my coworkers, who care enough to correct my path. We wear this badge out of respect for each other and those who have gone before us. On my watch, we will all go home safe to our families every day.”

This pledge comes from Union Pacific. The company wanted to develop a culture of safety, a culture in which their people would have the opportunity to recognize that they were part of a team, all looking out for each other.

Creeds summarize core beliefs that drive thoughts and behaviors and define culture. Many groups use them to repeat their most highly cherished values. When I worked at the Pentagon, we recited our creed before meetings. We were a team serving the people of the United States of America and living the values of mission first, never quitting, never leaving a comrade, being a guardian of the American way of life, and defenders of the Constitution. That’s heady stuff, but creeds usually are.  They call us to our most cherished values, to our greatest ideals, to our better selves.

This spring we closed our annual conference by reciting our Extension Professional’s Creed. Our creed helps us frame the beliefs of our profession and the unique work of Extension. How do we implement these beliefs in our daily work? How do we challenge ourselves to keep changing to best represent our ideals?  Because yes, to live up to our creed, ongoing change is required. If our creed doesn’t guide our work — what does? What will we ensure for our colleagues, our institution, and our citizens on our watch? See you there.

— Cathann

Extension and Outreach Can Be Gloriously Messy

One of the many joys of my job is the breadth of people I get the opportunity to interact with on a regular basis.  Yesterday for example, I was at a meeting with the Lt. Governor and heard fifth graders explaining their STEM project on habitats for small creatures.  There were frogs and millipedes involved in the demonstration.  A few weeks ago, I was meeting with winery owners and hearing their challenges with Iowa’s temperature extremes.  NOTE:  Wine was not  part of that demonstration.  And this morning, I was in a meeting with some physics professors as they attempted to “dumb down” the latest thinking on a coherent theory of the universe so I could grasp it.  I go home with my mind blown a lot.

That last one, though, is worth pondering. It used to be that physicists believed that they would one day uncover a coherent theory of how the entire universe holds together and works.  Now, the thinking is — maybe not.  Marcelo Gleiser at Dartmouth College argues against the likelihood of a unifying theory to explain the origins of the universe and our place in it.  In fact, according to Gleiser, the latest evidence reveals not only that there are imperfections in the fabric of the universe — they are the driving, creative forces behind its very existence. The universe, it turns out, is not elegant. It is gloriously messy.

I loved that idea when I heard it — and I saw Extension and Outreach as one small microcosm in that universe. The beauty of Extension and Outreach is that it IS kind of gloriously messy, and that’s where creativity happens. There isn’t one formula, or one way to organize, or one easy-to-follow blueprint that explains Extension and Outreach or predicts success in programming.  Our diverse partners and their ideas are wide-ranging and we want them engaged with us.  They often have different ideas about what they want, sometimes even contradictory.  This messiness gives us permission to experiment and be innovative. There likely will be more messiness this year as we take a closer look at our organizational culture and the direction we want Extension and Outreach to take moving forward.

To that end, all faculty, staff, and council members are welcome to participate in the 2014 Extension and Outreach Annual Conference. You’ll learn about our organizational culture, project and budget management, and putting new technology to work for programming — skills to help you navigate in this wonderful, organized chaos of Extension and Outreach.

It takes really dedicated people to do Extension and Outreach work. You have to be willing to experiment, to try different approaches, to live with ambiguity and imperfection. Sometimes our ideas work — sometimes even better than we thought they would. But sometimes they don’t work or don’t fit what our partner wanted and we have to start over and that’s part of the process. We are a learning organization. An important part of how we operate is that we try things, we learn from the experience, and we go on. Our 2014 annual conference will help us move Extension and Outreach forward. Here’s to embracing our gloriousness. See you there.

— Cathann

A Culture of Innovation

I follow several bloggers, journals, and other sources that often talk about innovation within large and established organizations. The consensus seems to be that if you want to encourage innovation and actually see some success, you have to pay attention to the culture and structure of the organization. I find this compelling because I am a firm believer that Extension was created to transmit and communicate innovation to our citizens.

Business leader and author Fred Hassan described how “internal tribalism” was hurting a company, and I wondered how that might apply to Extension and Outreach. We have many tribes within Extension and Outreach and often that’s a good thing, but sometimes it limits us. We’ve had a somewhat disjointed leadership structure in the past, and some tough challenges — which may have hindered our ability to align faculty and staff toward our common purpose. My informal organizational survey this summer suggested we have issues with messages being transmitted across the communication barriers of our internal tribes.

Innovation and communication (or the lack thereof) are part of an organization’s culture. That’s why our annual conference next March will focus on promoting an organizational culture committed to excellence and responsiveness to change. In a recent study, researchers identified four key pieces to fostering an innovation culture:

1. Inspire curiosity
2. Challenge current perspectives
3. Create freedom
4. Drive discipline

It seems to me that we need to create more opportunities for people to move from just passion for their unique programs to passion with accountability and an appreciation for the principles of our larger organization. Part of what I’ve seen in our organizational culture is a tendency for some of us to “delegate up” — we push tough decisions to our supervisors, while we embrace our program and passionately fight for the status quo. That prevents us from having to take responsibility or put ourselves at risk. However, the very nature of innovation IS risk. Innovation means applying a new idea or the novel combination of ideas or processes in ways that lead to impact. Innovation means doing something different, not merely doing the same thing better. 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

Birds of a Feather, Flock Together

Early in my extension career, I took an inventory to determine my personality style. The facilitator then posted our styles up on an overhead (yes, that’s what we used) so we could all learn to work together as a team. What struck me was how everyone in the group clustered together … except for one outlier. The facilitator described the main group — the “people” people, and as she did so, I recognized who the outlier might be. I was the lone “idea” person. That made sense to me as I contemplated our work. Extension is full of interactions with people, and relationships are a key to our success. You want to have “people” people for this kind of work.  It also means we have a lot of nice people who work in extension, people who are agreeable and concerned about others. It’s unlikely you choose a line of work like extension if you aren’t a nice person.

I want to be clear that nice is a good thing to be. However, with so many nice birds flocking together, extension work can become mired in a “culture of nice,” keeping bad work from being eliminated and good work from getting better. We’re too nice to call a bad project a bad project. When we criticize, we criticize in vague, general statements. Of course, we engage in these behaviors out of human decency. Who wants to be the one to say that someone’s program is not worth the effort?

There also is self-interest. We work with a lot of partners in this business. You don’t want to have criticized someone’s program only to find out you need his or her help on your next effort. So we shut up, and sometimes efforts that everyone knows are sinkholes of mismanagement just keep floating along. I’m not saying we should stop being polite, but doing our best work requires that we address the less efficient practices, the programs with little or no impact, the publications we spend money printing and storing in air conditioning but that no one wants any longer, or the time-draining meetings that no one wants to talk about.

In the article, “When Nice Won’t Suffice: Honest Discourse Is Key to Shifting School Culture,” Elisa MacDonald describes how educators feel deeply reluctant to openly critique their own practices or those of others, and how this serves as a barrier to thoughtful, meaningful sharing, especially in professional contexts. MacDonald provides a helpful list of signs that the culture of nice may be creeping into your professional conversation, including rarely questioning practices and assumptions, only sharing successful efforts to avoid judgment from peers, and recommending strategies that are not applied to our own efforts.

MacDonald gives examples and offers strategies to refocus the discussion in a more critical, honest direction. The goal, she argues, is to replace the culture of nice with a culture of trust, where educators feel safe in sharing their own growth areas and shifting thinking and behavior. She maintains that improvement only can occur when we can openly question long-standing norms and have rigorous collaborative discourse. MacDonald mentions it takes courage to respond in ways that will lead to incremental shifts in thinking and behavior. See you there.

— Cathann

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