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

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 http://www.extension.iastate.edu/content/countycouncils/.

Superstars … Or the Whole Team?

Former NBA player Walter Bond gave the keynote address at the 2011 Farm Bureau annual meeting — and his message has been noodling around in my head ever since.

Walter talked about our tendency to focus on basketball superstars. However, he noted that it takes many people for the NBA to function. Superstars do not “make it” on their own. They need the other players, coaches, trainers, managers, and so on, to successfully compete. Together they are the whole team.

Walter really wasn’t talking about basketball; he’s a motivational speaker now, after all. He was talking about organizations and what organizations need to succeed. A few superstars aren’t going to cut it — a successful organization needs a team with the right combination of staff at all levels, doing the right things. All the members of the team have to be really good at what they do and provide exceptional service to their customers — so their customers will enjoy the experience and return for more.

We’re building for success in ISU Extension and Outreach — so we all can be really good at what we do and provide exceptional service. That’s why we are restructuring extension administration into teams for County Services and Outreach, Operations, Program Leadership, and Organizational Advancement. That’s why we’re working on a professional development plan for our organization, but in the meantime we’re training our players. For example, ANR staff gathered for in-service in March, our office professionals participated in their conference April 4, and Families and 4-H staff held in-service this week. 

As we continue to follow up on our Leadership Summit, carry out our Strategic Plan, and implement our Business Plan, we will continue to address how we work as well as what we do, so we can more effectively engage Iowans and create increased impact through both existing and new programs. See you there.

— Cathann


Welcome to See You There, a blog for ISU Extension staff and county council members. My posts are intended to spark conversation on issues affecting our organization. How do they apply to your county, region, or program area? How are you addressing the issues? Let’s make this blog a gathering space for a meaningful exchange of ideas.

I’ve linked a few key resources here as well. For example, take a look at the Morrill Act on the Library of Congress website. It’s inspiring to view the document as our Thirty-seventh Congress saw it. Also see the County Agricultural Extension section of the Iowa Code, Iowa State’s Strategic Plan, the Journal of Extension, and information on public value. As this blog progresses, please suggest additional resources that relate to the issues and would be helpful to staff and councils.

Please join the discussion regularly. Together we can make this blog a valuable resource for ISU Extension. See you there.

— Cathann

Subscribe to “See You There”

Enter your email address: