Leading Indicators

I wonder how the Eared Grebes are doing. You might remember that during a storm nearly five years ago, thousands of them crash landed in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Utah, mistaking the rain-slicked pavement for a lake. As I wrote in my blog at the time, the impact left some birds dead, some injured, and some terribly confused. They needed some time to recover. (See “No More Crash Landing.”)

Back then ISU Extension and Outreach had been recovering from the aftermath of earlier leadership decisions, seemingly random processes, and unclear principles. That’s why we came together for a leadership summit, where we agreed upon the fundamental principles that would guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities across our programs. Our work over the past five years has made us a stronger organization, enabling us to better focus on what we all want – a strong Iowa.

As we’ve focused on our goal – providing education and building partnerships – we’ve discovered a few things about ourselves and our organization. We understand that our relationships – among our staff and faculty and with our clients and partners – make what we do worthwhile. We’ve become more comfortable using our values and purpose to guide our work. And we’re beginning to accept the continually changing, dynamic nature of ISU Extension and Outreach. That’s how we increase our capacity to be effective, to evolve, to develop opportunities, and to fully express the vision and mission first articulated by our extension pioneers. We are a learning organization, with shared values and a collective history of making a difference for Iowans.

There are a few leading indicators that help us see where we are headed:

  • The proposed university strategic plan includes ISU Extension and Outreach.
  •  ISU Extension and Outreach contracts and grants are up – an increase of $2.7M or almost 19 percent.
  • As appropriated funds remain level, we redirected resources to leverage four new Presidential High Impact Hires (faculty) and by streamlining processes grew “Program” vs. operations funds to 73 percent of all appropriated funds.
  • Our Engaged Scholarship Funding Program has launched with two projects and eight counties participating in the program. Projects begin July 1.
  • Our Data Indicators Portal has launched.
  • We completed the county wireless project to maintain technology in all 100 offices.
  • Our faculty and staff are leading the applied research, demonstrations, and education on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, Monarch and pollinator habitat revival, managing herbicide resistance, managing farm financial stress, and other issues facing Iowa.
  • We’re rebuilding strong linkages between ISU research farms and extension districts.
  • Extension expenditures in 2015 totaled $90.2M, of which counties invested 38 percent and ISU (federal, state, and other resources) 62 percent.
  • The Rising Stars program continues to expand and grow within the state, starting with six interns during the summer of 2014 and now has grown to eight.
  • Extension and Outreach in the state of Iowa currently employs 1,200 people: 450 county paid and 750 ISU paid (all sources of funds).

Now back to the Eared Grebes. Wildlife officials relocated many of the survivors to a nearby lake so they could recover and continue their migration. We have focused on our structure and priorities and continue to serve the university and the people of Iowa. Thank you for all you do to keep building a Strong Iowa. See you there.

— Cathann

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

Becoming Less Wrong

The other day I was working on figuring out how to reorganize the kitchen at home. This is an ongoing effort because there are now small appliances in my house which apparently, the original designer never foresaw when the kitchen was designed. Like the Keurig coffee machine, which doesn’t quite fit under the cabinet. Or the major duty blender which makes smoothies but is not like the old blender we used to have. I will admit, there are a few items in the drawer in my kitchen that are a bit of a mystery to me, like the ice sphere mold my son bought me and the remote grill thermometer my brother sent last Christmas. In other words, my kitchen has gotten somewhat complex.

Some things are complicated. Other things are complex. For example, airplanes are complicated. But air traffic control is complex. The more complex something is, the more information it takes even just to describe it. To manage complexity effectively, we have to account for that which is beyond our understanding. Complexity tends to yield what many call “wicked problems”- those predicaments that cannot be definitively resolved and attempts to fix them often generate more trouble. Wicked problems emerge when we have uncertain data, multiple value conflicts, economic constraints, ambiguity, resistance to change, limited time, no central authority, or no clear answer.

Business consultant Greg Satell says that instead of assuming we can find all the right answers to complex problems, we should strive to become less wrong over time. That means shifting from finding solutions to improving our problem-solving abilities. We have to think through problems to figure out whether we’re even applying the right type of solution.

The truth is there are few problems left which have easy and simple solutions. To break down complexity, we need to stay focused on our priorities. We have to keep our principles in mind. We have to ensure that people understand their roles and purpose, because it’s easier to innovate when you know where the  boundaries are, and we have to be comfortable with the ongoing experimentation. We may have to partner with others who have expertise we don’t have. We may have to operate in fiscal situations we did not foresee and evaluate opportunities that are uncertain. We have to be ready to take responsibility for that which we cannot control. In Extension and Outreach we can solve some problems. We can strive daily to become less wrong. See you there.

— Cathann

Leaving It Better Than You Found It …

Last week, my daughter, Wren, and I moved out of the house we’d rented since last July into our new home. We are exhausted, but happy, and look forward to the rest of our family (and furniture!) joining us in July. Part of the exhaustion came from a day of cleaning the rental house. When Wren asked why we were making all the effort for a house we’d no longer be using, I quoted her the phrase my dad often quoted to me: “Try to leave things better than you found them.”

I heard this phrase again this week when I travelled to Spencer with President Steven Leath (and thanks to everyone in Spencer for the warm welcome). Over a service club luncheon, President Leath explained that his goal is to someday turn over this university to the next president better than he found it when he arrived in January. Central to that goal is his desire to not just be a student-focused institution, but to be a citizen-focused university. President Leath said he has a soft spot for Extension and Outreach — not just because he was an extension plant pathologist early in his career, but because of the role Extension and Outreach plays in a key metric he’s interested in for his presidency — being the university that best serves its state.

To meet this metric, our institution must not only educate our youth (and currently, more Iowans are educated at ISU than any other university), and focus our research on what is valuable to the state and region, but we also need to keep our priorities on target and be service-focused with communities and citizens throughout the state.

In Extension and Outreach, we’re gearing up to assist President Leath in meeting this important metric better than we ever have before. We intend to strengthen partnerships across campus to enhance connections with communities. We intend to leverage resources to invest more effectively in local programs. We intend to more rigorously monitor and demonstrate our impacts. Because just like President Leath’s intention for the university, those of us in Extension and Outreach intend to leave our state better than we found it. 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

Just Jam? All about Choices

Many of us (especially in my generation) feel like we are constantly wandering through the midway at a large State Fair, with our senses assaulted by too much information. So many choices of what to read, what to listen to, where to go, what to do …

Maybe you’ve heard of the famous “jam study.” In 1995, Columbia University Professor Sheena Iyengar and her research assistants set up a booth with samples of jams in a California gourmet market. Every few hours, they switched from offering a selection of 24 jams to a group of six jams. On average, customers tasted two jams, regardless of the size of the assortment, and each one received a coupon good for $1 off one jar of jam.

Here’s the interesting part. Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. But 30 percent of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.

That study “raised the hypothesis that the presence of choice might be appealing as a theory,” Professor Iyengar said last year, “but in reality, people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.” Iyengar should know. She has a joint appointment in the Columbia Business School and the Department of Psychology and is recognized as one of the world’s leading experts on choice.

Research also shows that an excess of choices often leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide. There’s often that nagging feeling we could have done better.

So what might this mean for our clients and the educational programs we provide in Extension and Outreach? How many choices do they really want from us? How many choices should we be prepared to give them? Do they know what they want? Do we know what they need?

Perhaps we’d all be better off if we set priorities first.

As we move forward from our summit, we know our educational programs must be appropriate within the scope of our educational mission, and provide knowledge, instruction, or information. We know they also must be based strongly in research evidence, and/or be connected to ongoing research at Iowa State. Finally, we know that our educational programs must align the needs of Iowans with federal, land-grant system, and college and university priorities.

Let’s use what we know to develop the best educational programs that we can provide, and offer the choices that will best engage Iowans. See you there.

— Cathann

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