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.

Touring Gas Stations

“Money is like gasoline during a road trip. You don’t want to run out of gas on your trip, but you’re not doing a tour of gas stations. You have to pay attention to money, but it shouldn’t be about the money.”

— Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO, O’Reilly Media

According to his blog, Tim O’Reilly spends much of his time “encouraging people to work on stuff that matters.” That sounds like good advice for ISU Extension and Outreach. Funding streams change, percentages fluctuate, fiscal cliffs come and go. But when it comes to our work, we’re not doing a tour of gas stations.

This was well illustrated last summer, when campers at the Iowa 4-H Center experienced an Immersion in Wellness. This Iowa State research study is targeted toward lowering childhood obesity. According to extension nutrition specialist Ruth Litchfield, the kids really did immerse themselves in wellness — from gardening to learning how to cook to eating what they’ve actually grown in the garden and being physically active. They learned that being healthy is fun.

Youth program specialist Brenda Welch leads Mad Scientist Day Camps to get young people excited about STEM learning. When they conduct research-based experiments, such as extracting DNA from bananas, Brenda says, “Their excitement, and the smiles, and the laughter when they actually extract DNA and they can see it in the test tube — it’s incredible.”

During the slowly unfolding crisis of the drought last summer and fall, more than 6,000 Iowans participated in our meetings and webinars and called our hotlines and specialists for updates on crop, livestock, and horticulture issues. As beef specialist Denise Schwab says, “We’re not here for the cattle or for the crops, but we’re here for the farmers that we work with. That’s what makes this job fun and exciting and a challenge to go to work very morning.”

As we begin another year with a new Congress and the Iowa Legislature back in session, remember this: No matter what financial challenges we might face, we will pay attention to the funds, but ISU Extension and Outreach is not about the money. Instead, we’re focused on making sure Iowa State becomes the university that best serves its state. That’s our story. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. Watch the videos about these Extension and Outreach efforts and review our annual report at the Our Story website.

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, www.iowadatacenter.org

Pre-mortem for Organizations

“CSI” TV shows give viewers a chance to watch investigators collect and analyze crime scene evidence. Many of us have a good grip on that process and see the value of forensics and postmortems in determining what happened.  To solve a crime, we need to know what happened. However, postmortems seldom occur with failed organizations, because no one’s left to investigate. Gary Klein suggests organizations conduct a pre-mortem — to prevent death. Klein suggests an organization project into the future, assume failure, and then come up with the reasons. The goal is to figure how to prevent these major reasons for failure. 

 Think about ISU Extension and Outreach five years from now and imagine failure: When I offered this challenge at my interview forum, participants provided six highly consistent reasons. They are listed below in the rank order mentioned:

1. Poor communication (28%) — internally and externally

2. Inability to change (18%) — unwillingness to let go of familiar programs as well as irrelevant programs

3. Isolation (15%) — from constituents and critical partners, as well as field, campus, and upper administration

4. Unclear vision and mission (15%) — lack of vision or inconsistent vision with values of Iowa, constituents, and the university

5. Poor leadership (15%) — leaders who don’t motivate others, solve problems holistically, or build public support for the public good

6. Insufficient resources (9%) — continued decreases in funding

The first five issues can potentially impact our ability to generate revenue, and deserve our fuller attention.  However, funding was not the primary concern.  I hope to prove to you in the next few months that we already have taken steps to address concerns about leadership.  In the near future, I’ll be discussing these issues in greater depth. Until then, I encourage you to talk to colleagues, constituents, and stakeholders about these concerns. What do you think we should do about them? What do our partners think we should do about them? Invest some time in reviewing these issues generated by your experience and perspective. Prepare to work collectively to prevent them from blocking our successful future. We can imagine failure – but then let’s use what we learn to ensure our success. See you there.


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