innovate Extension: Lessons learned from inaugural event

This post is written by Danae Wolfe, Ohio State University Extension Ed Tech Specialist and Jamie Seger, OSUE Ed Tech Program Director and Leader, Community Design for the eXtension Ed Tech Learning Network.

On May 12th, 2016 Ohio State University Extension held its inaugural innovateExtension event, following Ohio State University’s popular campus-wide Innovate conference. innovateExtension was designed as a “Hackathon” event – during which teams competed for grant funds by developing an idea, plan, and pitch over the course of one day. Teams were assigned “Creative Coaches”eXtension Ed Tech Learning Network members and other innovative Extension professionals from across the country! Participants also had the opportunity to create a “Life on Mars” prototype during a creativity exercise at the beginning of the event.

Planing a trip to Mars, the GEEKS team lays economic dev plans with the “4th Rock Brewery.” #InnovateOSUE
— Bradd Anderson (@Braddtastic) May 12, 2016

This was the first “Hackathon” event of its kind ever held in Extension, and we knew there would be some risks involved. Would teams participate in the creativity exercise? Or groan and refuse to make silly prototypes out of cardboard and googly eyes? Would they embrace the truest form of innovation and think way outside of our Extension bubble? Or would they revert to our tendency to frame “new” ideas around how we currently operate? There were so many unknowns and a lot of risk involved, but we felt the outcomes would be worth stretching our tiny OSUE Ed Tech Unit when considering potential long-term impacts for the organization..

While planning and prepping, we agreed that we would feel fulfilled if at least 50 individuals registered for the event. As the registration deadline approached, we quickly doubled, and then nearly tripled that amount! In the end, 23 teams (more than 140 individuals) participated in innovateExtension.

This equated to 23 teams creating 23 ideas, programs, and concepts and then pitching their “products” to their OSUE peers and administrators.

Below are our top takeaways from our experiences planning and facilitating innovateExtension at OSUE. Read a recap of the event on our OSUE Ed Tech blog here.

People need time, space, and opportunities for innovation

Many Extension professionals are not inherently innovative in their work. Extension organizations across the nation are stuck using archaic methods of education, processes, and organizational structures because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” It can be scary to step outside of outdated comfort zones without explicit permission to do so. innovateExtension provided Extension professionals in Ohio with the permission they needed to be critical of our organization and dream big while proposing solutions to our greatest problems. Providing a dedicated time and space for innovation allowed staff to feel comfortable with thinking and working differently. This was apparent in the event follow-up survey. Many respondents noted they enjoyed most the time they had to spend working and creating with their team, which is something that isn’t always possible during normal Extension day-to-day work schedules.

People need parameters

As the coordinators for the event, we wanted to ensure that participants’ ideas would not be constrained by variables like possible funding or pitch requirements. Despite attempting to keep innovateExtension as flexible and fluid as possible, participants made it clear they wanted clearer expectations. In the end, many event participants longed for criteria reminiscent of traditional grant applications. We spent much of the day fielding questions about how much total funding would be awarded that day (there was no cap on funding), what information teams should include in their pitch (this was largely dependent on the team’s idea, though we did include some recommendations in the event program), and exactly how the voting would work (some people were more concerned with the fairness of our voting method than they were with creating a great pitch).

People tend to work with like-minded people

When we conceived of the idea for innovateExtension, we knew the best ideas would come from diverse teams, that is, teams that had representation from multiple program areas and program support staff. We allowed people to register as pre-formed teams or as individuals who would be placed on teams. Most event participants registered on teams made up of colleagues with whom they had already been working. Unfortunately, the very structure of Extension lends itself well to this working structure – people work with others in their program areas. For future events, we will almost certainly see more creativity and innovation by assigning participants to work on programmatically diverse teams and not allowing team self-selection.

People need incentives

Planning and preparing for an event like innovateExtension is challenging, but perhaps the greatest challenge to launching such an event is encouraging people to attend. Our event drew in nearly triple the number of participants we originally hoped for thanks to directed marketing and incentives. Event participants indicated that the biggest incentives for participating in Innovate Extension were not giveaways, but rather the opportunities to spend a workday with colleagues, present their team’s idea directly to administrators, and informally apply for funding. Marketing the event as a grant-funding opportunity (without the hassle of a formal application process) incentivized participation for many people.

Interested in replicating innovateExtension in your state? Over the coming year, eXtension hopes to assist in replicating similar events via the Ed Tech Learning Network, Innovation Teams, and the new eXtension Innovation Lab. Contact Jamie Seger for more information.

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