Monthly Archives: July 2009

Lessons from McNamara

Dr. Ron Smith, a long-tenured Extension entomologist whom I’ve always held in the highest personal and professional regard, once related to me that truly exceptional Extension work is grounded on a highly refined sense of intuition gained through years of outreach experience. 

By intuition, he was referring to the deep well of understanding and empathy that develops between clients and their educators over years, if not decades, of close association — an insight that often equips the educator with a unique, if not uncanny, ability to articulate their clients’ problems even before they are aware they exist.

And it is this — far more than any other attribute associated with Extension work — that not only defines our mission but also distinguishes us from many of our counterparts in the more formal areas of  academia. 

But the operative phrase here is “long years of experience.”  This sort of understanding doesn’t happen overnight.

I gained an even deeper appreciation for Ron’s insights after reading Marc Ambinder’s reflections on the life of McNamara in “The Atlantic Monthly.”

Ambinder observes — rightly, I think —that McNamara’s fatal mistake was in assuming that “one smart person with a vision can see what thousands of others with experience cannot.”

“We live in an era where another band of credentialed experts promise answers to many profoundly complex questions,” he writes.

McNamara was the protagonist in one of the most tragic sagas in U.S. history — a credentialed expert leading a legion of similarly “credentialed and jargon-y” mandarins afflicted by the same fatal conceit.

He readily embraced the Vietnam War as his own and was fully prepared to bring all the forces of American technology and logic to bear on what became, with each daily body count, the most intractable challenge in U.S. military history.  But in formulating this vast and and complicated equation, he ignored the most important factor of all: the human element, namely, the grim and dogged resolve of the enemy.

Yes, there is a place for credentialed experts. Our serried ranks are full of them. But while we Extension educators have been guilty of one or two visionary lapses over the last century, we’ve never minimized the most important factor: the human element, namely the value of insight gained through the close and reciprocal relationships forged with our clients, sometimes lasting for years, if not decades.

As credentialed experts, we’ve have always valued reason, but we have always balanced this with a healthy appreciation for its limits. We have never ignored the human element.

And as we face the most monumental challenges in our history, it behooves all of us to stop for a moment and reflect on what we do right.

Surely, this is one of the things we do right.

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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…

Improvising an Apology

This morning, I woke up with the term “muddle” bouncing around in my head.  I applied that term recently to describe Extension’s longstanding practice of working through problems over time rather than applying solutions too quickly — an organizational trait I consider to be one of our strongest, albeit with some reservations.

I’ve been a little uneasy about that choice of words ever since.

Anyway, I looked up the word in the online dictionary and my worst fears were confirmed.  Among other things, muddle means “to cause to become mentally confused.” 

Yes, I admit it: I overstated my case.

Improvise may be a better verb for the argument I’m trying to make.

So consider this post an improvised change of heart.

Muddling Through: The Great Extension Dilemma

I’ve often joked that the Cooperative Extension concept shares a lot in common with the British.

Britons, namely the English, have always evinced a strong prejudice against applying quick fixes to complex problems.   They prefer to muddle through — to work through problems over time.

So do we.  Extension educators are muddlers.  Like the English, we prefer to work toward complex solutions over time.  We tend to be wary of applying grand solutions too quickly.

As I see it, this is our greatest strength — and one of our most serious weaknesses.

The good news, I think, is that this longstanding organizational trait uniquely positions us to compete in an increasingly wikinomical knowledge landscape — far better than many other public and private players, in fact. We readily share what we know and work with other public and private partners to bring our resources to bear on complex problems.

Collaborative knowledge is as intrinsic to the Extension experience as bats and gloves are to baseball.  We’ve been in the collaborative knowledge business for a long time.  Seaman Knapps’s Terrell, Texas, farm demonstration plots are arguably an early 20th century forerunner of wikinomics.

Need I even mention agricultural field days and 4-H demonstrations of every conceivable kind? Extension’s legacy of shared knowledge would fill volumes.

Here’s the rub: The penchant for working slowly through problems is also reflected in our organization’s development.  There has always been a sort of ad hoc quality to Extension’s organizational structure.

Our organizational structures have been cobbled together to address pressing needs.  It’s been this way from the very beginning, even before formal passage of the Smith-Lever Act, when Seaman Knapp and Alabama Polytechnic Institute President C.C. Thach hastily patched together a memorandum of understanding to govern how the U.S. Department of Agriculture would collaborate with API to carry out Extension work in the state — an agreement that subsequently served as the blueprint for Extension programs throughout the nation.

Yes, it worked reasonably well.  But within the last century, this discursive approach has also contributed to a murky undersanding of our organizational mission within our ranks.  Even worse, the public’s grasp of who we are and what we do is even more tenuous.  And in an era of reduced funding at all levels, this is not a good thing.

This is Extension’s principal dilemma: a legacy that both helps and hinders.

What can we do about it?

More about that later…

Deep Context, Part II

Andrew Sullivan rocks the blogosphere.  He has for a long time.

Employing a saying once attributed to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, he dominates because he got there “the fastest with the mostest” when this medium was still in its comparative infancy.

Yes, like most innovators, he saw the value of blogging long before many others did.  And like every other successful Web pioneer, he’s not resting on his laurels.  He continues to think out of the box, complementing his erudite but readable prose with interesting, often hilarious, youtube videos, along with carefully chosen photos, color graphs, and other visual media.  He uses these elements not only to illustrate but to underscore his editorial themes.

More recently, he has virtually cornered coverage of the uprising in Iran, underscoring to me, a rather prosaic learner, that blogs really do have the potential of outrunning white elephants — I mean, uh, mainstream media —a remarkable feat when one considers he is only one blogger competing against hundreds of conventional news outlets around throughout the world.

But aside from all the innovative ways he’s enhanced his presence in the last few years, he’s does another thing exceptionally well: He provides his audiences throughout the world with deep context — in many cases, with definitive context.

Any one of his legions of faithful followers who spends at least a half hour on his site leaves with a reasonable degree of assurance that he/she has been well apprised of the issues of the day — the reason why Sullivan’s blog, “The Daily Dish,” is so aptly named.

He also engages his readers.  Not content to concentrate on a couple of topics a day, he roams all over the map, weighing into one issue with a brief paragraph or two, before moving onto something new and often unanticipated.

But just when you think he’s burned out on an issue, he comes bounding back, sometimes with an extended post, sometimes with a terse reply to a reader comment.

You never know what to expect next, and that accounts in large measure for why the Daily Dish remains the 800-pound gorilla of blogging.

And, yes, as you may have already ascertained, I believe Sullivan’s has a lot to teach all of us in Cooperative Extension.

Surf onto any Cooperative Extension Web site, including, I regret to say, ours, and what you almost invariably find are static blogs — an approach that flies in the face of everything that Web 2.0 is teaching us.

We must borrow a page from Andrew Sullivan’s playbook and begin thinking out of the box, packaging blogs that provide all of the things associated with successful blogging: deep context, engagement and, yes, even the occasional unexpected.

Lessons for Cooperative Extension

I’ve been an active user of the Web for some 13 years now — since 1996.

Shortly after I got started with Web surfing in the mid-1990s, I cultivated a fascination with an intellectual topic that was dominated by one guy, a Brooklyn lawyer, who had posted a cornucopia of FAQs, resource lists and external links related to his specialty on a very nondescript page.

He complemented this material with online interaction on a USENET group he had created using his vast knowledge of UNIX (As it turns out, he is a polymath of sorts:  a summa cum laude graduate in mathematics from Dartmouth who later enrolled at Yale Law School to pursue a legal career.)

Years have passed and I’ve moved far beyond this particular intellectual interest, but I still remember it as one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.  With the comparatively primitive technology available in the 1990s, this guy, this very smart, creative guy, provided his audiences with a body of knowledge as vast as it was compelling.  But he also provided something more: A shallow learning curve.

Knowledge that would have required years to obtain, moving from one book another — and only then if I were lucky enough to live near a well-equipped library — required only a few months of intensive online reading.

I was fascinated and captivated by the whole thing — hooked to the very marrow of my bones.

Looking back, roughly 15 years later, I realize I owe this fellow a significant intellectual debt.

And as we press ahead into the brave new world of Web 2.0, there is a lesson here for Cooperative Extension.

Years ago, this exceedingly bright Web pioneer was providing his audience with rich context.  Within this comparative crude medium, he established himself not only as a rich source of information but also as the DEFINITIVE source.

With the vastly improved technologies available today — blogging, Twitter, and Facebook — this is what Cooperative Extension must do:  provide our audiences with the deep context they seek. 

In a few rare cases, especially those in which we still enjoy distinct comparative advantages, we must do something more: We must provide not only deep context but also strive to serve as something akin to the definitive source.