Several years ago an enterprising Indian automaker achieved the unthinkable: It found a way to make a car as cheaply as a motor scooter — an awesome feat in a nation that had looked to scooters as a principal means of transportation.
Tata Motors, in the course changing the face of Indian car ownership, also drove home some vital lessons that American companies had best take to heart, argue Kevin Frieberg, Jackie Frieberg and Dain Dunston, authors of Nanovation: How a Little Car Can Teach the World to Think & Act Bold.
So should we in Cooperative Extension.
Indeed their article about nanovation, which ran recently in the Washington Post, is every bit as pertinent to the future of Cooperative Extension as it is to American auto manufacturing.
Few public or private entities see paradigm shifts in the making. What little of it we see, we regard with vague dread.
As the three authors stress, though, like it or not, we are in the middle of a paradigm shift, one that is calling on us to undertake three critical steps: to question the unquestionable, to do more with less and to go to the intersection of trends.
Questioning the Unquestionable
In all professional honesty, the first step usually is one of the most dreaded within Extension ranks. As much as I love this organization, as much as I cherish its longstanding commitment to change and innovation, I’m often troubled by the legions in our ranks who are not only risk-averse but question- averse.
They don’t grasp one of the emerging truths of this new information order: Questioning the unquestionable, far from being a frivolous waste of time, more often than not constitutes a way around organizational impasse.
That’s right: outlandish questions produce serendipitous insights, which, in some cases, even lead to great conceptual leaps. If you doubt that, read Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, especially the section dealing with the immense insights that emerged from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University following the Sputnik launch in 1957. (I’ll say no more in hopes that it prompts you to read the book!)
Outlandish questions should be encouraged in our ranks. Indeed, I can only imagine how much further down the road we would be if more of us were willing to question the unquestionable.
Never forget that Cooperative Extension is the product of a series of outlandish questions that challenged the conventional, not to mention elitist, educational thinking of the 19th century.
Doing More with Less
We hear it constantly: All that ceaseless carping about how budget cutting is forcing us to do so much more with less.
Here’s where I will go out on a limb and question the unquestionable: Why not regard these losses instead as creative spaces in which to develop with new ways of innovative thinking?
If Tata Motors has demonstrated one thing, it is that we can do more we less. Working with fewer resources does not mean we have to be less creative. As the authors stress, Land Rover, which is now owned by Tata Motors, found a way to reduce their vehicles by 1,100 hundred pounds without reducing interior space.
Crises offer opportunities to undertake the first step: to question the unquestionable — to ask probing, sometimes unpalatable, questions about how we do business.
We should view doing more with less as not as calamities but as opportunities to become creative by exploring new ways of engaging and serving our clients and in ways that are not only more relevant to their needs but that also complement the technology already available at their fingertips.
It’s a tall order, I know, but by asking the right questions — and by that I mean asking outlandish questions — we can achieve the unthinkable.
Going to the Intersection of Trends
As the Nanovation authors stress, those who survive will be those who not only concede a paradigm shift in the making but who also strive to understand how it will play out.
Granted, as any automaker would concede, it’s currently impossible to get 50 percent efficiency out of a gallon of gas. Even so, they can’t deny what’s happened with computers: the electricity required to run a computer has halved every 18th months.
As the three authors stress, the best positioned car manufacturers are those who already conceive of future in which in which fuel efficiency increases by the same geometric rates. They’re already looking ahead to the intersection of the trends critical to their future.
As it turns out, Extension professionals aren’t required to make such a conceptual leap, because the factor that drives our future — the rates of knowledge transfer — are already occurring at such a pace.
We have already arrived at our intersection of critical trends.
In one sense, our next step is simple — not necessarily easy but simple. Our outreach methods must be transformed to complement this new reality.
But the question remains: Are we primed to take the next critical step?