Tag Archives: Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

Extension’s Opportunity for Creative Sedition

Cirque Du Soleil

Cirque du Soleil is credited by many, including Harvard Business School's Youngme Moon, with reinventing the concept of circus.

In her brilliantly insightful book, Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon recalls the teacher’s advice regarding what she should send with her children on their first day of kindergarten: a favorite stuffed animal, blanket or toy — any familiar object that blunted the effects of the newness and uncertainty that awaited them.

This advice ended up serendipitously reinforcing what later provided to be a critical insight of her book.

During those occasional disruptive periods of life, we prefer the newness of our altered circumstances to be anchored as much as possible by familiarity — sameness — but in our day-to-day living, we like our monochrome sameness to be occasionally embellished by flashes of newness.

Indeed, Moon contends this passion for a sameness sporadically punctuated by eruptions of newness is an innate desire that defines the sum of human existence.

Therein lies a critical branding lesson: The most successful enterprises in the future will be those who produce the optimal amount of difference by  striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

I finished the last page of Moon’s book more convinced than ever that striking this balance will be the central preoccupation for public and private entities in the 21st century.

Extension will prove no exception — something of which I was reminded last night reading an especially incisive post on the Cooperative Extension System Facebook page.

As the poster observes, funding shortfalls are already forcing Extension to do more with less, namely less staff.  Sooner or later, these shortfalls, along with other social and economic factors, will force Extension to reevaluate what it does — or, more specifically, what it can and can no longer do. In other words, it will call for the formulation of a new organizational focus.

That raises the obvious question: What should that focus be?

For some, it’s a scary question.  For others, including yours truly, it’s a question that conceivably presents us with one of the greatest opportunities in our history — at least, if we view this challenge not as the severing of a limb but as an opportunity not only to redefine ourselves but also to differentiate ourselves in a meaningful and lasting way from our competitors.

As I see it, this challenge — redefining and differentiating ourselves — brings us back to what Moon perceives as the sum of human existence: striking the right balance between sameness and newness.

She cites a number of private companies that have risen to this challenge and succeeded spectacularly.  One especially noteworthy example is Cirque du Soleil.

As Moon and countless others contend, Cirque du Soleil has redefined the whole concept of circus.  As counterintuitive as it seems, they have succeeded by eliminating much of what has traditionally been associated with circuses — dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters — and substituting something entirely new, namely elements of dance, theater, music and gymnastics.

Among some critics, Cirque du Soleil, by eliminating the usual features of circuses, no longer qualifies as a circus.  But as Moon contends, that’s precisely the basis of Cirque du Soleil’s genius: there’s a certain “seditious advantage” in positioning oneself as a circus while venturing beyond stereotype.

I think the times present Cooperative Extension with a similar opportunity for sedition — creative sedition — an opportunity to position itself within the category of government/university outreach agency while venturing beyond stereotype.

This raises the inevitable question: What form should this transformation take?

How much newness do we introduce? How much sameness do we retain?

Here’s another way of considering it: What Extension versions of dance, theater, music and gymnastics will we employ to replace the dusty air, prancing animals and ringmasters?

Rest assured that I’m formulating some answers to these questions that I’ll share in an upcoming post.

More a Movement than an Agency?

I finished Harvard marketing guru Youngme Moon’s superb book “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd” and relegated it to a remote corner of my bookshelf so that I could move on to new subject matter.  Try as I might, though, I can’t seem to get her arguments out of my head.

She raises an issue every bit as critical to public-sector entities as it is to private-sector enterprises: How do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors — in our case, the legions of other agencies that line up each year for a dwindling share of the state and federal revenue pies?

Equally important, how do we do this in an era when “gub’mint agency,” especially in my deep-red state, engenders, shall way say, a host of negative connotations among many voters?

Our success in the future will depend on how well we differentiate our message from others.   Essentially it all boils down to whether we depict our message as special enough to merit special attention, if that makes any sense.

Here’s one idea that keeps bouncing around in my head: Long before passage of the Smith-Lever Act, which established a formal tie with the nation’s land-grant universities and that secured our funding streams, we functioned as a mass movement. This movement grew out of the agriculture societies of the late 18th century , though it was expanded to encompass other facets of life, including what was then known as homemaking.

Indeed, farmers were undertaking Extension-type outreach efforts decades before anyone even thought of developing land-grant institutions as a means of providing formal agricultural and mechanical training to common folk.  (For a deeper perspective on this issue, see my earlier piece “Of Cow Colleges and British Dominions.)

Arguably, we still function as a movement, providing lots of people with a sense of self-mastery and purpose aside from measurable economic benefits.  Indeed, Master Gardeners, which I consider to be one of the most successful Extension innovations in our long history, strikes me as a prime example of the many ways in which we still incorporate characteristics of a social movement.

Oh, and don’t forget 4-H, which enjoys even stronger movement credentials than its parent organization.

As bestselling author Dan Pink stresses in several of his books, these more intangible values are what drive growing numbers of better educated, more affluent Americans in the 21st century.

Indeed, I would argue that because we possess strong movement roots, we depart significantly from many other government agencies.  In many respects, we bear many of the hallmarks of a NGO (non-governmental organization) and in ways that other government entities don’t.

Incidentally, these insights were reinforced a couple of weeks ago reflecting on an interview with an elderly Extension volunteer, who related her memories in a ways that evoked an affiliation with a movement far more than with a government agency.

That raises the question: Could we benefit by reviving some of these long dormant traits and emphasizing them in future marketing/branding efforts?

To be sure, emphasizing our strong roots as a movement is fraught with challenges.  For starters, we run the risk of adding an extra layer of nebulousness to an image that is, well, already murky in the minds of legions of Americans.

Even so, I think there are historical factors that do make us unique and that do have the potential of helping us differentiate ourselves from others.

It’s a topic worthy of discussion.

Thoughts on Youngme Moon

I’m reminded of the challenge of differentiating our message from scores of others at about this time of year when my colleagues and I meet to develop the  next annual report.

One issue is always in the forefront of my mind: Ensuring that the theme and subject matter are interesting enough to engage the active interest of state legislators.  Yes, it’s important that other clients and stakeholders see it, but legislators are at the top of the list.  They hold the principal purse strings.

Even so, I know how colossally difficult this is. I’ve spent a few days during legislative sessions walking through Statehouse corridors  watching legislators being buttonholed by one lobbyist or constituent after another, often plied with glossy publications of every shape and description.

As hard as we try, I know that more often than not, the fruits of our creative efforts run the serious risk of being consigned to “File 13” along with all those other glossy publications.

My perennial concern: presenting this report in a way that distinguishes it from every other similar product.

Small wonder why I’m captivated by Harvard marketing guru Youngme Moon’s new book, “Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd, Succeeding in a World Where Conformity Reigns but Exceptions Rule.” I try and limit book purchases to a couple a month and happen to be seriously backlogged this month, but, alas, I couldn’t resist a book with that captivating a title.

Here’s the big problem as she sees it: Corporate marketing is operating on the basis of a highly antiquated strategic model.  It prompts businesses to conform to their competitors’ branding rather than explore ways to separate their product from the hundreds, if not thousands, of similar products.  The end result is a gradual homogenization of products.

One of the more notorious examples: college ranking systems, which work to dissuade universities from experimenting with new models of pedagogy that will not likely reflect well in the metrics.

Moon’s purpose for writing the book is to start a dialogue rather than to offer hard and fast solutions.  Needless to say, there are major implications for Cooperative Extension — otherwise, I wouldn’t have taken the time to post this.