Our Collective Genius

“Good” leaders take charge and set the course for their organizations, or so some textbooks would have you believe. That might work for making widgets, but for education and partnerships? Not so much. The work we do in ISU Extension and Outreach requires a bit more give and take from all of us, particularly if we’re interested in innovating. Innovation is the creation of something both new and useful. It doesn’t necessarily stem from the “good” leadership model in which people follow the vision of their leader and do what they are told. Instead, leading innovation requires creating conditions for good things to happen.

Authors Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove, and Kent Lineback call this “collective genius.” (See their article in Harvard Business Review.) It occurs when companies – or organizations – develop their ability to innovate. But it doesn’t just happen; it takes work. To be innovative, the authors say, an organization has to develop three capabilities:

  • creative abrasion – the ability to generate ideas through discourse and debate, allowing for collaboration;
  • creative agility – which enables discovery-driven learning, being able to test and experiment through quick pursuit, reflection, and adjustment; and
  • creative resolution – the ability to make decisions that combine disparate and sometimes opposing ideas.

There’s one more crucial piece to creating collective genius: People who want to make good things happen. People who are willing to generate and try new ideas. And as we say in the Extension Professional’s Creed, people who believe in their work and in the opportunity they have to make their lives useful to humanity. In ISU Extension and Outreach it’s about people – and our collective genius – working and partnering for a strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

The Path that Makes Future Change Easier

Recently, I was reading some articles on software development. I know. When I started a conversation at home with this sentence, my daughter looked at me in disbelief. The real story is I was stuck in an airport late at night and the only reading material had been abandoned by a previous passenger. I thumbed through most of it, but one section caught my attention.

Apparently in the software development world, there is a group of methods for practice referred to as Agile, in which solutions evolve through collaboration between cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning and continuous improvement. Agile as a practice requires just a few steps:

  • Find out where you are.
  • Take a small step toward your goal.
  • Adjust your understanding based on what you just learned.
  • Repeat.
  • How to do it: When faced with two or more alternatives that deliver roughly the same value, take the path that makes future change easier.

And that’s it. According to Andy Hunt, those four steps and one practice encompass everything there is to know about effective software development. Of course, this involves a fair amount of thinking and some additional cautions. Don’t confuse the model with reality. Thinking that your project should “go this way” like it did in your head or on paper might trap you. The only thing a project is supposed to do is succeed.

Also, don’t spell out too much detail too soon. Hunt calls that premature optimization and essentially suggests that detail too early can act like instant glue — limiting innovation and reducing options. So give yourself (and your colleagues) some room to find out where you are, experiment, and adjust your understanding. Then pick the path that makes future change easier. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Innovation and Relationships

Yesterday I participated in a national study of innovation in extension, and I have to say that I ended the day feeling less confident that I understand innovation, its role, and what supports it than I did before. Uh-oh.

It started with the first question I was asked: “How do you define innovation in extension?” I know. That sounds like an easy question until they follow it by asking you to give three examples. Where do you start?

I don’t know how your thought process goes, but how do you talk about innovation in extension in the first place? Do you mean an innovative program? Do you mean an innovation that we helped diffuse to the larger population? Do you mean an innovation in how extension is structured and delivered?

In some ways, answering this question is like being in a house of mirrors. Extension was essentially created as a targeted innovation diffusion structure. The role of extension was to provide the trusted adviser and create the social process through which innovations could spread. I think sometimes people misunderstand the role of extension and think we are just information dissemination, and if that’s the case, then there is good reason to worry with the Internet and other means for accessing information 24/7. People who think this way often believe that important innovations will spread quickly, now that we’ve got the Internet. Some do, such as innovations related to communication technologies and YouTube videos.

However, according to Atul Gawande there is a long list of vital innovations that don’t catch on just by sharing the information. The puzzle is, why? Gawande studied whether innovation diffusion was negatively impacted by economics, technical complexity, and other factors. What Gawande learned is that there is a pattern with stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious and requires effort that may not yield its full impact until much later. In other words, they are “wicked problems” that have complex solutions and require changing social norms. Gawande notes that truly changing norms requires nearly one-on-one, on-site mentoring — which doesn’t sound like much of a solution. Gawande states, “It would require broad mobilization, substantial expense, and perhaps even the development of a new profession.” (Hmmm. Sounds like extension work.)

Gawande, who works in the medical field, continues: “Think about the creation of anesthesiology — it meant doubling the number of doctors in every operation, and we went ahead and did so. To reduce illiteracy, countries, starting with our own, built schools, trained professional teachers, and made education free and compulsory for all children. To improve farming, governments have sent hundreds of thousands of agriculture extension agents to visit farmers across America and every corner of the world and teach them up-to-date methods for increasing their crop yields. Such programs have been extraordinarily effective. They have cut the global illiteracy rate from one in three adults in 1970 to one in six today, and helped give us a Green Revolution that saved more than a billion people from starvation.”

Gawande then goes on to quote one of Iowa State’s own, Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas spread. Rogers wrote, “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation.” Media can introduce an idea, but people look to other people they know and trust when they decide whether they will pursue that new idea. Extension — innovation and relationships. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress. Read Gawande’s article at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/slow-ideas.

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

Building Relationships and Strengthening Communities

Monday was Memorial Day, recognized nationwide for great sales and bargains. At least that’s what all the advertising circulars would have us believe. Some people who had the day off, but who didn’t go shopping, may have thought of it only as the unofficial beginning of summer and grilling season.

My family still calls it Decoration Day, but Memorial Day was intended to remember those who died in service to our country. Many communities still have parades, celebrations, or service events to commemorate the day.  While I worked at the Pentagon, I attended national ceremonies at Arlington — a definite reminder of the service of so many.

I appreciate the time to reflect upon service. The community aspect resonates with me as well. Bringing people together for a common purpose builds relationships and strengthens communities.

When we carry out our land-grant mission, we build relationships and strengthen communities throughout Iowa. Iowa State’s new president, Steven Leath, wants the university to be fully engaged in moving our state forward. He calls himself “a land-grant guy” and he understands that through Extension and Outreach, Iowa State University is embedded in communities across Iowa to consistently engage with citizens. Let me share a few of his recent comments:

From Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, 3/2/12

“I started my career as an extension person in Illinois. I have great respect and understanding of extension.”

From the Des Moines Register, 4/12/12

“I think it’s going to be hard for Iowa as a state to really go forward economically and create the jobs Gov. Branstad wants if the university is not fully engaged.”

From the Cedar Rapids Gazette, 2/11/12

“I think land grants, more than any other university type in this country, get their mission right. They’re based on high-quality education, research to benefit society, and then translating that research to effective engagement.”

From ISU Alumni Association’s Visions Magazine, Spring 2012

“[Iowa State] has done a very, very good job of transferring its innovation and faculty scholarship outside the campus where it makes a difference in society.”

“And what it really translates to when you come right down to it, it’s about relationships. They have to trust me, they have to trust the university, they have to know we’re a good partner. They’re going to have to know we’re accountable, we’re transparent, and we’ll make good partners with them. And then you build those relationships over time, across the state with different constituencies, and that’s what will make us successful long term.”

See you there.

— Cathann

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