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.

The Baby or the Bathwater?

A couple weeks ago while meeting with other extension directors, a few began complaining about budget cuts, changes in structure, and the end of the world as we know it. I was surprised they saw changes to structure as potentially signaling the end of the work. It reminded me of that saying about throwing out the baby with the bathwater — an expression my grandmother used when she thought something essential was being thrown out with something less important.

After that discussion, I found myself wondering about the adage itself. … How could anyone ever accidentally throw out a baby along with dirty bathwater?  Is it because the water was so dirty you simply lost sight of your baby?  Was the baby so small and the tub of water so large you lost it?  Have we ever lost the most important among the unimportant in Extension and Outreach?

It’s been three years since the 2009 restructuring and five months since our summit. So, what is it we do now in ISU Extension and Outreach? I’ve had a lot of people ask me that question, with the assumption that after budget cuts, competition from Google, and other changes whizzing past us, our work has changed dramatically. I agree — it has. Everyone in Extension and Outreach needs to learn and adapt, but how do any of us know what we’re doing next? It’s a challenging question — because what we do can change rather quickly, and so is who “we” are.

“We” isn’t just a group of field specialists or county educators or extension faculty anymore. County extension council members, county staff, faculty across all the colleges, deans … our tent is bigger and more inclusive than before. And just as our tent is expanding, so too are ideas about what we do. What makes this our tent? What brings us all together? What are we hoping to achieve? Of all the assumptions and ideas we’ve brought with us, we must decide which are the babies and which are the murky bathwater.

Our structure changed because the world is changing, but I’m convinced we can and should hang on to our mission. It seemed to me some of the other directors were more concerned with preservation of the current structure of their organizations rather than considering ways of effectively accomplishing our mission in the future. After all, in our long and rich history, the structure of our organization has undergone several changes. They may have forgotten those wise words of Liberty Hyde Bailey: “Whenever a piece of work comes to the point where maintenance of the organization is the principle aim, it begins then to lose its direction.”

At our summit last fall we clarified that our structure does not define us; our mission makes us who we are. ISU Extension and Outreach puts the land-grant mission to work by applying land-grant university research and evidence-based practices across the state. We are committed to healthy people, healthy environments, and healthy economies. The work of the summit and this commitment to Iowans and to Iowa’s future enriches our work and determined our new Strategic Plan. You can see the plan, hot off the press so to speak.

This past fall we took time to determine what is “baby” and what is “bathwater.”  It’s our mission that defines our work. Hang on to that baby.  See you there.

— Cathann

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

One Week After …

Last week, more than 500 of us from 89 counties and campus came together for our leadership summit.  We agreed upon fundamental principles to guide our decisions, structure, behavior, and priorities in Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.  We also prioritized that we must collectively focus on some specific actions if we, as an organization, are going to thrive.  Finally, we pulled from the principles and actions to identify a set of priorities for our action. We agreed to strategically support partnerships and collaborations, the development of effective planning and coordination systems, including ones for professional development, and needs assessment.  The Leadership Team is already reviewing ways to realign resources and begin moving toward these priorities.  Prior to the summit, I pulled together a team that is already at work compiling everything we worked on into a report that will become our playbook. This action plan will guide how we invest resources—people, funds, and time—in the coming year and will be ready in a month.  In the meantime, see the one-page summary.

This summit marks the start of the new way we are going to do business in ISU Extension and Outreach. No more ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants operations. We have a lot of knowledge and best practices in ISU Extension and Outreach, and it would be good to have systems to share them. Think of the extraordinary capacity we would have if we could stand on each other’s shoulders.

We will have to strike a balance on a number of issues, and it won’t be easy:  how do we allow flexible entrepreneurship vs. having common structures, when do we use common systems vs. providing tailored responses, when is it most efficient to operate in a centralized vs. decentralized manner?  We’ll need to make these decisions as we proceed.

I went to the summit probably much like you, with expectations. I hope that like mine, most of your expectations were fulfilled.

  • I hoped that we would remember we are a team. No matter which category you selected during voting, we are all one team with common mission and common principles.
  • We are all part of moving us forward — decisions each of us makes determine our success and whether we create something meaningful as our “what’s next?” or whether we just go back to business as usual.
  • We want to be a part of a meaningful endeavor—a relevant, vibrant organization. The summit certainly offered evidence of our shared commitment.

As I’ve said before, here in Iowa, people care about each other and their communities. They believe if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. Iowans see the value in serving the public good, and they come together to get things done.  But, WE ARE NOT done. Please keep engaged; when asked, give input, serve on committees, pilot new systems. Take responsibility for helping us become what our early pioneers envisioned. Let’s live according to our principles. Let’s carry out our mission. Let’s be Iowa State’s treasured resource. See you there.

— Cathann

P.S. We are still taking comments related to the summit on the blog site.  To be able to review and share ideas when appropriate, we need comments by noon next Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Gym … or the Auditorium?

When I was a 4-H youth specialist, a school administrator asked me to help figure out why children acted up during their school assemblies. A cellist had performed for the children and as he described it, they behaved terribly —jumping up, pushing, fidgeting and they wouldn’t keep quiet.

I asked to see the auditorium where the assembly was held. So the administrator took me to — the gymnasium. I asked how the gym was “set up” for assemblies, and the administrator seemed confused. Turns out they didn’t set up the space at all, but merely brought the kids in, had them sit on the floor, and told them to be quiet. In a gym. What do kids usually do in a gym? They run around and play; they don’t sit quietly. As the cellist played, the kids were simply acting the way the way they were “supposed” to act in a gym.

To change their behavior, those kids needed an auditorium. So we made one. We hung some old velvet drapes, set up folding chairs, and put up a sign that said “Auditorium.” Next, we brought in the kids for a “pretend” assembly. They sat in the chairs and we talked about how behavior in an auditorium is different than in a gym. Then we practiced being quiet and listening. The next time the school brought a performer to the “auditorium,” the children knew how to behave. Those kids demonstrated that structure determines behavior. Whatever structure we create determines what will happen in that structure.

So what about ISU Extension and Outreach? Do we have a structure so we know what to do? Or are we trying to listen to the cellist as we sit and fidget on the gym floor? Does our current structure enable us to move forward and fully address issues Iowans are facing today? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s all be thinking about the structure of ISU Extension and Outreach as we prepare for our leadership summit in November. Where does our structure get in the way of our work? Where does it help us be more effective? Remember: This is the time to focus on big ideas. Let’s focus on our mission and explore partnerships we could build, learning opportunities we could create, and the structures that would be most efficient to best serve Iowans and our institution in the years ahead. See you there.

— Cathann

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