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


DNA is a double helix, two strands that curve beautifully around each other. Both strands are essential to determining an individual’s genetic makeup. Organizations have DNA too, in a sense — basic building blocks that determine what they will be and how they will operate.  In my view, education is central to our Extension and Outreach DNA. Iowans believe in education as a way to solve today’s problems and build toward the future. It’s why there’s a school house on our state quarter: our state is committed to education. Not every state shares this commitment, but it is central to the character of Iowa.

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter calls it Iowa’s shared responsibility. In his recent Des Moines Register opinion piece he said our universities have the responsibility to provide world-class education. State government has a responsibility to financially support the universities. Students and parents have to plan for higher education and the financial obligations that come with it. The Board of Regents has to make sure our public universities remain accessible and affordable for future generations. (And ISU recently was ranked #1 on the A-List.)

In Extension and Outreach, providing access to education is our responsibility. This strand of our DNA connects to an equally important second strand: the belief that we do our work through our diverse and meaningful partnerships. We work in communities, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder with the people who live there, dealing with issues confronting our partners at the local level.  President Rastetter said that we all have to “assume our responsibilities and embrace all efforts to make our good programs great and our great universities exceptional.” But it won’t happen unless we’re willing to make tough decisions and implement change.

When I need to make a decision about allocating resources or strategic planning, or when I’m trying to figure out what’s the best direction for Extension and Outreach going forward, the components of our DNA are always driving decisions. Does a particular program help us work in the local community more effectively? Does it help us deliver high quality educational opportunities to our citizens? I encourage you to ask these questions as you make decisions in your particular role. If you understand the two parts of our DNA, you understand a whole lot about Extension and Outreach and sharing responsibility for education in Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

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

When a Mouse Was Just a Rodent: Technology and What It Means

Last week I gave the keynote address at the North Central Extension Regional Science Academy in St. Louis. I believe in 4-H and the land-grant mission, and that we are uniquely positioned to ensure our young people have the science, technology, engineering, and math skills they need to be successful in their futures. But more importantly, I believe there is increasing need for all youth to understand these areas to be well prepared as citizens and leaders who can make good decisions about the future of our communities and our world.

As I prepared my comments, I thought about all the things my children know to get along in 2012 that I barely dreamed of when I was their age. My sons laugh when I tell them about bag phones the size of a shoebox, or carrying my punch cards across campus to run one statistical equation on the mainframe that took up the entire basement of a university building. That computing power has now been surpassed by something I carry around in my pocket.

Twenty years ago, most of us thought a mouse was just a rodent. The idea of a wireless phone that could transmit pictures was something found only in science fiction. Twenty years from now, by the year 2032, we will need to know stuff we can hardly guess today.

Our youth also will have to face the fact that technology favors some and ignores others. Bill Robinson, who spent 30 years as an electrical engineer in Canada, says it well: “We spend our time and effort creating exciting new communications technologies, yet half the world does not have access to a telephone. We use the Internet to order the latest novel, yet many people in the world don’t have access to books. We are now discussing embedded processors to connect our refrigerators to other appliances and the grocery store, yet many children in the world go to bed hungry at night.”

As our planet swells, today’s 4-H members may have to live their adult life knowing that a billion people are starving in their world. In 2032, today’s 4-H youth no longer will be the youth at the beginning of 4-H’s second century. They will be our community leaders, our scientists, and parents of the next generation.

This year, we are partnering with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as it hosts the World Food Prize Iowa Youth Institute with focus on Global Food Security. We also will increase partnerships with ISU’s other colleges to foster enhanced pre-collegiate outreach opportunities. 4-H started with the simple idea that youth would get excited about the newest discoveries and technologies and become early adopters who could then lead change in their communities. That simple idea seems even more relevant now, as Iowa works to create jobs, increase family incomes, improve our schools, and reduce the cost of government.

Leaders in both the public and private sectors recognize that America’s ability to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy largely depends upon two things: a population that is well trained and technically competent, and the scientific and technological innovations they produce. I would add a third: We also need to cultivate an informed citizenry and leaders who can make wise decisions about how to use these innovations and knowledge in ways that build our economy, enhance our world, and enrich our lives.

See you there.

— Cathann

Miracle … or Good Planning?

Remember the movie Bruce Almighty? The guy gets everything he wants, and as it turned out … he was wrong about what he thought he wanted. He was thinking about what he wanted in that moment. You remember the story — funny, simple plot, lots of heart. It ends with a line that’s easy to remember — “Be the Miracle.”

As we live day by day, we likely get caught up in what we think we need to take care of today or next week or by the end of the fiscal year, and it is good to take care of those things. But we can’t forget about planning for the future. Sometimes forgoing “instant gratification” to focus on what is really important just might be a good sign that we’re on the right track. We can’t base our decisions on who provided us with the strongest argument for their cause or what might be the most palatable to our constituents. We need to gather good information. But then, we have to make decisions based on what we truly believe will be best for the future of ISU Extension and Outreach and for the citizens of Iowa.

Instead of funding proposals for various Extension and Outreach efforts as they randomly come across my desk, I will be calling for proposals for the Vice President’s Extension and Outreach Initiatives. This funding opportunity is designed to encourage projects and programs that will strengthen our overall portfolio and incorporate the top actions from the summit. It’s a planned approach, not ad hoc.

We’re going to be seeking proposals from five key focus areas:

  1.  Pre-collegiate outreach (programs intended for K-12 audiences)
  2.  Innovative programming to engage citizens in 14 extension districts based on population, number of youth, and growth rate* (Polk, Linn, Scott, Black Hawk, Johnson, Woodbury, Dubuque, West Pottawattamie, Story, Dallas, Clinton, Warren, Muscatine, Cerro Gordo)
  3. Healthy environments, economies, or people
  4. Professional development
  5. Global food security

These initiatives should carry out sustainable improvements in Extension and Outreach that will enhance the quality and accessibility of our research-based education, make implementation more efficient, build productive collaborations and economies of scale, and support programmatic success along the needs assessment, program development and design, implementation, and impact evaluation chain.

Extension and Outreach is complex and multi-faceted, so these initiatives should support the ideas of individuals and teams across our system—including extension faculty, program specialists, and staff across all program areas; county staff; regional directors; and members of the Iowa Association of County Extension Councils. Initiatives should address larger-scale projects that Extension and Outreach units or staff would otherwise not be able to accomplish on their own.

At the end of each funded project, the team will submit a report on the project’s accomplishments, impact, and sustainability. We’ll make these reports available across our system so others may learn about the approach taken and consider adapting it to meet their own needs.

More details and the proposal template will be available soon. Proposals are due March 2. No additional funding requests will be reviewed this fiscal year.

We need to make decisions. We must take action. These initiatives will help us move forward in 2012, as we continue to seek sensible, streamlined ways to deliver Iowa State research to the citizens of Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

*State Data Center of Iowa,

No More Crash Landing

Sometimes leaders, and their followers, get confused.

In December 2011, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that thousands of Eared Grebes had crash-landed in Cedar City, Utah. During a storm the migrating birds seemed to have mistaken a rain-slicked Walmart parking lot for a lake. As reported in the Tribune, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources estimated that nearly 5,000 birds landed at Walmart. Grebes aren’t built for ground landings, but are designed for the water.  The impact left some birds dead, some injured, and some terribly confused.

Maybe no one in ISU Extension and Outreach has ever crashed into a Walmart parking lot, but chances are, we’ve all been confused a time or two. It’s not hard to get mixed up when leadership decisions seem unclear, processes appear random, or basic principles are uncertain.

However, our leadership summit in November marked the start of our new way of doing business in ISU Extension and Outreach.

  • We affirmed that our core purpose is to provide research-based educational programs. We extend the resources of Iowa State University to our state.
  • We accomplish our goals by developing diverse and meaningful partnerships.
  • Through our purpose and in partnership, we provide relevant, needs-driven resources, and as a result, create significant impact in the state of Iowa.

We agreed that these fundamental principles would guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities across our programs. That’s why we will be making strategic changes to streamline ISU Extension and Outreach Administration into four functional units to better support our overall mission:

County Services and Outreach. This unit will support county-based efforts and extension councils, build partnerships, and coordinate program implementation across the state and at the local level. This unit also will better align us with our ISU academic counterparts; ISU provides student services and is student centered, while Extension and Outreach provides county services and is citizen centered.

Program Leadership. Headed by our program directors, this unit will guide our efforts in educational program development.

Operations. This unit will focus on human resources, finance, and business activities; setting up practices, procedures, and processes that are clear and establish how to access resources or assistance.

Organizational Advancement. This unit will keep us on track with our mission, developing our people; communicating our efforts to partners, stakeholders, and others; coordinating fundraising and philanthropy; and advancing Iowa State and Extension and Outreach.

The Administrative Response to our leadership summit will include more information about the roles and responsibilities of these units and other actions we will be taking to clarify processes and decisions. This structure, along with our business plan and strategic plan, will move us forward on our path to becoming a relevant, vibrant organization, with a common mission and common principles. No more confusion, and no more crashes. See you there.

— Cathann

What’s Your Mindset?

In 1998 Tom McBride and Ron Nief, with Beloit College in Wisconsin, launched the Mindset List. Every year since then they’ve compiled a list of what is “normal” for incoming college freshmen. For example, for this year’s freshman:

  •  There has always been an Internet ramp onto the information highway.
  •  They “swipe” cards, not merchandise.
  •  Jimmy Carter has always been a smiling elderly man who shows up on TV to promote fair elections and disaster relief.

McBride and Nief have expanded their list —back to 1898 and forward to 2026 — in their new book, “The Mindset Lists of American History: From Typewriters to Text Messages, What Ten Generations of Americans Think Is Normal.” They say:

“People have always predicted that certain innovations would mean the end of everything, only to have other generations realize that these changes actually meant the start of something else. … We make seemingly small decisions that accumulate into something grand — retrospectively labeled Major Change.”

“Some things remain as they’ve always been. Yet the human race adjusts. It invents, and then in time the inventing generation becomes the adapting one. We bend. In time most of us adjust to the ‘new normal’…”

In ISU Extension and Outreach we are experiencing our new normal as we get ready to implement our summit action plan, which will guide how we invest resources — people and funds and time — in the coming year. We’re developing our business plan to guide our operations, create systems to streamline our work, bring routine to shared functions, and provide consistency and organization for key processes so we all understand how we move forward together and influence future decisions. We are part of history in the making. See you there.

— Cathann

Fundamental Principles

What drives our decision-making in ISU Extension and Outreach: our fundamental principles or the laws of nature? We like to say that we base our decisions on the mission we hold dear — building partnerships and providing research-based learning opportunities to improve quality of life in Iowa. But what we say isn’t always what we do. That’s when the laws of nature win out and we do what’s easy, what makes us look good, or what causes the least amount of conflict.

For instance, how many times have we worked to keep a county client happy even when doing so may not have been aligned with our mission? When keeping everyone happy becomes an organization’s fundamental principle, that organization is setting itself up for failure.

Our fundamental principles — whatever they may be — do guide our decisions, behavior, and priorities. A few weeks ago, I discussed a list of reasons for Cooperative Extension– perhaps a few of those reasons resonate as principles for you.  Several years ago, I co-authored a report on Managing the Changing Portfolio of the Cooperative Extension System which included what a Joint Task Force identified as Guiding Principles, ( Together at our leadership summit in November we’ll be identifying the fundamental principles of ISU Extension and Outreach, on which we will base our future decisions and actions. See you there.

— Cathann

Making Decisions

“The percentage of mistakes in quick decisions is no greater than in long-drawn-out vacillation, and the effect of decisiveness itself ‘makes things go’ and creates confidence.” — Anne O’Hare McCormick (American journalist, 1882-1954)

How many extension professionals does it take to make a decision? Maybe that’s not the right question. How long does it take to make a decision in ISU Extension and Outreach? Too much of the time the answer is “too long.”

We have to learn to gather information, consider our options, and then not worry so much about the decisions we make, but instead, focus on implementation. When we spend too much time trying to make the perfect decision, by the time we finally decide, the time is past for effective action. Instead, gather the facts and make the decision. Then adjust as necessary during the implementation, which we often must do no matter how “perfect” the decision.

So, got facts? Good. Go start something. See you there.


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