Tag Archives: Dan Pink

What Drives Extension Work — Really?

Yesterday was one of those days  I was reminded of how fortunate I am to be an Extension professional.

I spent the morning interviewing an elderly northwest Alabama Extension volunteer – a Homemaker Club member and officer — who has spent her entire life either being served by Extension programs or dispensing them as a volunteer.

But wait: Is dispensing programs an adequate description of what she has done?  Doesn’t this phrase minimize, if not demean, what has amounted to an awe-inspiring commitment of time and creative energy?

As she related all the years of passion she poured into her volunteer work, I was reminded of the book I’m currently reading: Dan Pink’s “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.”

Pink summarizes what behavioral science has revealed over the past few decades: that the old Frederick Winslow Taylor-style carrot-and-stick incentives really aren’t that incentivizing.   Science has discovered that we’re driven far more by autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Simply put, people want control over their work, to get better at what they do, and, finally, to be part of something bigger than they are.

A thought occurred to me as I reflected on this dear lady’s experiences and the lessons from this book during the long drive home: So much of Extension work really is about these three things – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

This raises a fascinating point — something I fully intend to explore in subsequent posts: Isn’t our outreach work as much about providing experiences as it is administering programs?

Anyway, take the time to watch this excellent overview of Pink’s book and then, by all means, read the book!

Making It Stick: Telling Our Story With a Story

The Challenge

Story Telling

Even in this wired era, there is still a place for old-fashioned storytelling.

Imagine that you’ve been asked by your local civic group to describe Extension’s mission and your role in it. What would you say to keep your audiences actively interested and engaged for 20 minutes?

This question may seem trivial, but it isn’t. More and more, we’re being called on to tell our story in a way that our clients, stakeholders, and policy makers will remember. Simply put, telling our story effectively is critical to our survival as an organization.

Increasingly, we find ourselves competing with other agencies for a slice of the dwindling funding pie. And we’re now competing in a knowledge-driven, global economy. New York Times columnist and author Thomas Friedman describes this new environment as the “flat world” —a level playing field on which all knowledge providers on the planet compete equally, whether located in Huntsville, Seattle, or Sydney, Australia.

This flat world requires us to be innovative. How? Partly by ensuring that our messages stick with our audiences.

The Response

Stickiness is the gold standard of effective communication, especially in this flat world. Chip and Dan Heath, brothers, educators, and world-renowned experts on stickiness, have spent years trying to determine why some messages stick and others don’t. They even wrote a New York Times best seller appropriately titled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

According to the Heaths, sticky messages are simple, center around a story, and evoke an emotional response in the reader.

Keep It Simple

No one understands the value of simplicity more than the U.S. Army. Military orders have to be simple. Yet, after more than two centuries of experience, military planners know that despite the best advanced planning, actual battlefield conditions can change dramatically in the course of a mission.

Planners have come to value simplicity, which now forms the basis for a military concept known as “commander’s intent,” a stripped down statement that appears at the top of every mission plan. The statement outlines what the planners expect to accomplish following the operation’s conclusion, regardless of what may happen along the way. The details of the plan may change, but the end goal does not.

The most critical of military messages—the mission plan—has been stripped down to its barest essentials. By sampling this message, planners better ensure that it sticks with the audience—in this case, soldiers in battlefield conditions.

If you think about it, simplicity is a time-honored Cooperative Extension concept.

For more than 100 years, we’ve adapted this basic concept to a wide variety of audiences and settings, especially individuals and families with limited resources.

Center It Around a Story

Dan Pink, author of another New York Times best seller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, credits storytelling as one of the most effective ways to distinguish one product from another in this increasingly crowded global marketplace. How? By sharpening audiences’ understanding of one thing by presenting it within the context of another.

“Stories are easier to remember because, in many ways, stories are how we remember,” Pink says.

Why is storytelling so valuable from our perspective? Partly because our history is replete with stories—stories that provide us a compelling way to illustrate Extension’s mission and our role in it.

Here’s an example: the pioneering Jesup Wagon concept. Its creators, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, understood that the farming advances generated at Tuskegee were valuable only if they could be effectively communicated to farmers. In one respect, they faced the same challenge we do today: packaging and communicating a message that will stick with clients.

Enter the Jesup wagon, a movable school on wheels dispatched to remote locations to provide farmers with a practical grasp of the latest agricultural research. This story is invaluable for two reasons: 1) It helps us present our mission within a wider context; and 2) it allows us to present the mission in a compelling, sticky sort of way.

In equipping the first movable school, Washington and Carver included items of immediate practical benefit to farmers—a cream separator, a milk tester, a revolving hand churn, a cultivator, and a one-horse plow. If you think about it, the Jesup wagon concept embodies the basic idea that connects earlier generations of Extension educators with us: showing our clients how to understand and make practical use of knowledge—sometimes highly complex knowledge—to improve their lives.

Yes, we have just presented our basic organizational message—working knowledge—within the wider context of a compelling story. And in the process, we’ve made it sticky.

Evoke an Emotional Response

When you tell stories, don’t limit yourselves to basic historical facts. Weave in the emotional element—the human dimension. After all, the Jesup wagon concept was a response to a specific human struggle: farmers and their families surviving the grim conditions of the rural, post-Civil War South.

This emotional component can be found in other personal and historical accounts. Look for them and use them! Here are a couple of examples from recent Extension annual reports. These examples demonstrate how to tell Extension stories by combining the working knowledge theme with highly compelling—and sticky— human dimension components.

In Anniston, Urban Extension Agent Hayes Jackson uses his vast knowledge of plants to enrich the social and cultural life of his community and to broaden the scope and admirations of a group of disadvantaged teenage girls at the Coosa Valley Youth Attention Center. Working with Master Gardeners, Jackson operates a greenhouse as a living classroom, using horticultural instruction to provide the girls with a practical grasp of science-related principles. The plants propagated by Jackson and the girls are also used to instruct local gardeners and nursery operators in all facets of horticulture, from plant selection to drought-resistant landscaping.

Here’s another example: Many years ago, Debra Glenn, a young girl growing up in a Birmingham housing project, underwent a life-changing transformation while attending weekly 4-H DOT training. For the first time in her life, she was shown how to prepare simple, affordable recipes from scratch—recipes she could take home and prepare for her mother and brothers. This working knowledge—planning and preparing meals for her family—opened the door to a lifetime of self-mastery and empowerment. After completing high school and college, Debra went on to pursue a career in the medical industry, while spending part of her free time counseling delinquent youth.

Our Message: Working Knowledge

Working knowledge forms the bedrock of our mission. As Extension educators, we use working knowledge to empower the lives of Alabamians—a lesson reflected in the personal stories of Extension educators from the first decade of the 20th century to present day.

By sharing these stories, we enhance the effect—the stickiness—of our basic message. And by enhancing our message’s stickiness, we ensure that future generations of Alabamians will continue to benefit from our unique product—working knowledge.

To learn about other attributes of sticky messages, take a look at the Heaths’ book, Made to Stick.

Please Note: This piece, written by me, originally appeared as Alabama Extension publication EX-00855.

Employing Flip-Thinking in Cooperative Extension Work

Karl Fisch, an algebra teacher at Arapahoe High School near Denver, has gone bass-ackward on his students.  Instead of devoting classroom time to lecturing, which has been the way of doing business for as long as there have been classrooms, Fisch is using this time to offer intensive problem-solving and experimenting with concepts.

What happened to the classroom lectures? Fisch is posting them to youtube instead.  Kids are expected to watch the youtube lectures at home in the evening so they will be fully primed for problem-solving and experimenting the next day.

Speaking as an execrable high-school algebra student, the whole concept of lectures at night and problem solving during the day really appeals to me.  Goodness knows, if I had been afforded the same opportunities as a teenager, perhaps I wouldn’t have been derided by my algebra teacher as “the worst student who ever passed through Russellville High School.”

And that’s precisely the point, says visionary and bestselling author Dan Pink, who recently shared this account along with several other notable examples of what he describes as flip-think.   As Pink observes, ideas such as Fisch’s force people to slap their foreheads in astonishment and ask why more schools aren’t doing things this way.

“That’s the power of flipping,” he says.  “It melts calcified thinking and leads to solutions that are simple to envision and implement.”

In this increasingly competitive global knowledge economy, examples of flip-thinking are occurring all around us, Pink says.

For example, U.S. and British book publishers are employing flip-think, publishing paperback editions and even e-books of new, obscure authors instead of risking costly hardcover editions.

The more I experiment with social media, the more astounded I become with flip-thinking’s potential within Cooperative Extension work.

Consider crop tours. For decades, these tours have traditionally included a series of stops, each comprised of brief presentations by subject-matter experts, followed by a quick traipse into the field for closer crop inspection before moving onto the next tour stop.

Up to now, any video associated with the tour, usually recordings of field presentations, were posted days or weeks after the tour.

Here’s an example of flip-thinking: Why not record the presentations a few days in advance, freeing up more time for crop inspection and troubleshooting as well as more direct interaction between growers and subject-matter experts in the field?

The advantages of such an approach are obvious: Growers would be able to view the youtube presentations for as long and as often as they pleased, even as more time was freed up during the actual tour to allow for closer crop inspection and one-to-one interaction with subject-matter experts.

Much of the Master Gardening training likely could be handled the same way, freeing time for more hands-on instruction.

This is only one example among many of how Cooperative Extension longstanding emphasis on high touch could be enhanced through innovative practices.

The aim here is not to undermine or replace the traditional face-to-face interaction that has underscored traditional Extension outreach but to augment it through innovation, namely through more creative use of technology.

Also bear in mind that innovative thinking doesn’t necessarily have to involve a complete flip.  It simply must work to free up time to make work tasks more effective.

I’ll end this by challenging my fellow Extension professionals with the same homework Pink offers his readers:  Tonight after work, come up with at least one process, practice, method or model that will enhance high-touch effects of your personal outreach efforts.

You may be surprised at what you discover.

Back to the Future: A Training Strategy for Cooperative Extension

We have a saying here in Alabama that proclaims our happiness at not occupying the rock-bottom place on every state list:  “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Granted, as far as most state lists go, Alabama, historically speaking, hasn’t fared that well.  Even so, we Alabamians have always been a bit of an anomaly.  We figure high on some lists — music, athletics and colorful political figures, to name only a few.    Alabama also has the high distinction of pioneering much of what is known today as Cooperative Extension work, thanks to the diligent efforts of Alabama educators, such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Luther Duncan and P.O. Davis, to name only a few of Alabama’s many Extension luminaries.

Of course, Alabama’s Extension history comprises only a part of an unusually ample treasure trove — something that should be mined every Extension program in the nation.  Indeed, gaining a better understanding our early 20th century past will better equip us to become effective educators and professionals in the future as we reengineer our mission and outreach methods to the challenges of the 21st century.

How? By helping Extension become an axial organization.  By axial organization, I mean one in which knowledge of our past — namely, knowledge of how our past uniquely equips us for the future and, equally important, how it distinguishes us from our competitors — informs everything that we do.

There are several reasons why I think this knowledge is so important.

Our Murky Image

First starters and partly through no fault of our own, Cooperative Extension has struggled with a murky organizational image.  That’s not surprising: The Extension mission has evolved in many different ways over the past century.  Simply put, we’re multifaceted.  In fact, the multifaceted nature of our mission arguably should be regarded as one of our operating costs.

There is a need and a place for marketing to dispel some of this murkiness among our diverse audiences, but our employees often lack a clear understanding of Cooperative Extension too. 

Organizational Building

Extension methods are a highly nuanced and developed, albeit evolving, set of skills.  They have had to be. We are, after all, the ultimate educational improvisers.

Older employees have often pointed out that mastery of these highly nuanced skills and principles have been one o f the most rewarding aspects of Extension work.

Even so, for a variety of reasons, many younger Extension educators lack an adequate grasp of these methods, and, most important, how they must be refined to ensure that Extension outreach work remains relevant among 21st century audiences.

This dovetails closely with more recent insights associated with that perennial question that has occupied management experts and social psychologists for decades: What motivates us and, equally important, what are the factors that produce professional contentment and achievement?

Bestselling author Dan Pink, writing in “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” explores the how the need to grow, to develop and realize our fullest potential has emerged as a major motivator in the 21st century.

In the course of demonstrating to our employees the continued relevance of our history and mission, we can go a long way toward instilling them with a renewed passion for Extension work.

Surviving in a Global Knowledge Economy

Readers of my weblog are fully aware of how much worry, not to mention, prose, I’ve expended on implications of the emerging knowledge economy to Extension’s future.

At one time, we were one of the dominant knowledge providers within a comparatively sparse knowledge landscape. But as the 21st century progresses, our once commanding presence has steadily eroded.  The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, namely print and broadcast media, as traditional sources of knowledge is being steady supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge — search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies — all of which can be accessed at virtually the speed of light.

We must underscore to our educators and professional the critical need to distinguish ourselves from other knowledge providers within what Thomas Friedman has aptly described as “the flat world.” Much of this will depend on how successfully we adopt social media strategies as a way to distinguish ourselves from other knowledge providers.

Training’s Focus

So, we’ve outlined the challenges.  What do we do next?  We develop training — training to acquaint our participants with the three essential insights they will need to be fully equipped for 21st century Extension work.

These include our close association working knowledge and wiki (or collaborative) knowledge and our historically strong emphasis on dialogue and empowerment.

Extension’s “Working Knowledge” Legacy

Extension educators and professionals must develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has historically played in advancing practical knowledge to a preeminent place in American life. 

We must remember, though, that Extension educators accomplished something even more significant: they added value to practical knowledge, transforming it into working knowledge by showing ordinary Americans how to use it to make meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.  It is a unique form of knowledge reflected in the work of early Extension forerunners, Seaman Knapp and Alabama’s own Booker T. Washington. 

Providing employees with a deeper understanding of this working knowledge legacy will secure a greater organizational clarity, not only internally but, ultimately, also externally.

Equally important, it will help them understand that while our educators can’t compete with search engines, they are still equipped to provide their clients with deep context, showing how practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

Wiki Knowledge

 To an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

But isn’t working knowledge — the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the past century — a forerunner of this wiki approach?  Wasn’t this kind of knowledge first foreshadowed in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s Farm Demonstration Wagon?

This long institutional commitment to collaborative knowledge is yet another example of how Extension is uniquely equipped to rise to the challenges of the 21st century knowledge economy. 

Underscoring our longstanding organizational commitment to collaborative knowledge will instill our employees with a keener understanding of and appreciation for the role social media techniques will play in leveraging their outreach efforts.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Over the last few years, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.  

For example, British sociologist Anthony Giddens has observed that the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the central, provincial or local level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages clients to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Largely because of its history, Cooperative Extension is uniquely equipped to operate within this changed public policy landscape.  Indeed, this change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase our distinctive outreach legacy, which is reflected in historic emphasis on working and collaborative knowledge.


Some Extension professionals may deride this approach as a protracted form of navel-gazing.  To be honest, it is.  Even so, we believe a productive form of navel-gazing is long overdue in our ranks.  A heightened understanding our history will help us meet two critical challenges in the coming years: It will help us achieve a stronger grasp of the skills and insights required for our survival in a 21st century knowledge economy and, equally important, it will help us distinguish ourselves from millions of other knowledge providers on an increasingly crowded landscape.

Time for Navel Gazing in Cooperative Extension Ranks

Several years ago, a young, brash and, as it turns out, astute, intern submitted a paper to our Extension director stressing one of Cooperative Extension’s perennial challenges: it’s murky image.

While he was referring exclusively to Extension’s murky external image, the thought has occurred to me that our organization’s self-image is just as murky and that this internal murkiness contributes in large measure to our nebulous external image.

We can talk about marketing our organization to stakeholders and clients until we are blue in the face — and, granted, there is plenty of merit to such a discussion.  But aside from the marketing issue lies the equally pressing challenge of banishing the murkiness within— of instilling our own employees with an adequate understanding of our legacy and mission and, equally important, of helping them understand how these must be fine-tuned and adjusted to meet the myriad of challenges we face today.

The Need for Protracted Navel-Gazing

I’m not ashamed to admit it: Navel-gazing — and, by that, I mean big-time navel-gazing — is long overdue in our ranks.

I’ll even go one step further: I believe that far more of our organizational resources should be focused on helping Extension educators and professionals at all levels undertake a spate of protracted navel-gazing.  Without this introspection, we will never be fully equipped to understand our role within the wider context of the emerging knowledge economy.

Back to a word I employed in a previous post: axial.  Deep immersion is a crucial step in our efforts to transform ourselves into an axial organization, one in which a clear understanding of our history and mission comprises our organizational axis, which, in turn, should inform everything that we do.  And make no mistake about it: This organizational axis must comprise an indispensable element in our efforts to transform ourselves into an organization equipped to survive in this new 21st century knowledge environment.

Training, Training, Training

Here’s what I’ve proposed to my own administration: A series of training sessions dealing with Extension’s mission and legacy.  Through this training, we will set out to reverse engineer the whole Extension mission and legacy on behalf of our educators.  We would use this series not only to show  how this mission and legacy was built on the uniquely American emphasis on practical knowledge but also how generations of our educators have added value to it by transforming it into working knowledge.

 A Deeper  Lesson

But we would also use this forum to drive home an even deeper, more valuable lesson:  How this historic mission and legacy uniquely equip us for this 21st century knowledge environment.  

After all, to a significant degree, early 20th century Extension educators were forerunners of the sorts of collaborative knowledge that comprises so much of what we know today as social media — the kind of collaborative knowledge techniques that government, businesses and educational institutions are adopting to succeed in this emerging knowledge environment.

Additional Lessons

There’s another lesson that must be driven home, especially to younger Extension professionals: that Extension work is a highly developed set of practices, which have been refined and perfected over more than a century.  As older Extension educators have observed, many younger professionals carrying teaching and research responsibilities in addition to their Extension appointments sometimes fail to develop even a tenuous grasp of these practices, much less an adequate understanding of how these must be refined to serve us effectively in the present-day knowledge economy.

Yet, there is even more to be gained from this training — an insight best expressed by Dan Pink in his latest book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.”  Drawing on the wealth of research undertaken in recent years on personal motivation, the book drives home an important insight: that once our survival needs are me what motivates us is our ability to grow and develop and realize our fullest potential.

A measure of navel gazing not only will help us build an axial organization:  Equally important, a concerted effort to inform and enlighten our people about the continued relevance of our mission and legacy  will also instill them with a passion for Extension work as well as an added incentive to attain their fullest potential as Extension educators.