Taking the Creep Out of Our Features

After almost a quarter century working for an organization, you begin to see things — patterns. 

As I mentioned earlier, one of the great dichotomies of Extension is the way we improvise everything, including our outreach efforts and, yes, even our organizational structure.

In some respects, this is a good thing.  Time and again, our history and mission have uniquely equipped us go the long haul.  What started out as a seemingly intractable problem, ended in resounding victory a decade or so ago: The final rout of the boll weevil.

Boll weevil eradication is a monument to Extension’s improvisational genius.

Even so, we’ve tended to apply the same improvisational strategy to other facets of our work, including our organizational mission and structure.

Simply put, our mission and structure have tended to evolve according to need.  And as one improvisation follows another, our core message tends has tended to become more and more diluted.

The end result: a murky organizational identity — not a good thing in an era in which we must compete with many other agencies for increasingly scares levels of funding.

Marketing experts Chip and Dan Heath have developed a wonderful term for this improvisation gone amuck: feature creep.

The Heaths define feature creep as “the tendency for things to become incrementally more complex until they no longer perform their normal functions very well.”

Sound familiar?

This tends to be a deep-seated problem in the electronics industry.  Much to the dismay of designers, engineers love to add gizmos to all sorts of things, especially remote control devices.

In their best seller, Made to Stick: Why Some ideas Thrive and Others Die, the Heaths introduce Jeff Hawkins, a team leader at Palm Pilot who was determined to put the kibosh on feature creep.

Hawkins was determined to make the Palm Pilot as simple and as user friendly as possible.

The product would do only a few things, but it would do all of them well, exceptionally well.

But how? What could he do to rein in his engineers’ intractable penchant for gizmos?

His solution was to hand each of his team a small wooden block cut to the same dimensions of the Palm Pilot — a visual standard to guard against feature creep.

Whenever any member of his team suggested another feature, Hawkins invariably would produce the block from his pocket followed by the inevitable question:  Would it fit?

We Extension educators should draw an important lesson from this story. 

 Hawkins used the block to define the Palm Pilot more in terms of what it was not than what it was.

All of us in Extension would do well to heed this lesson.  Figuratively speaking, we need our own wooden block — some standard of measure that helps us define who we are and, equally important, who we’re not.

More about that later…

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