Cultural Vistas Blog

Our Journey to Becoming an Agile Organization

A year ago, this month during the height of the pandemic, our organization started having internal conversations about the need to be more agile.  Our business like many others came to a complete standstill.  We were in the middle of implementing layoffs, figuring out how to deliver exchange programs virtually and pursuing government stimulus funding.  The terms “agile,” “pivot” and “reimagine” became a major part of our vernacular.

ag·ile /ˈajəl/ adjective

    1. able to move quickly and easily.
    2. relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development, that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.

These conversations were far reaching, theoretical and very confusing.  The discussions ranged from how to foster an agile mindset to how to become a “flatter” organization to how we were going to start acting and talking like a software development company – the prominent users of agile product development.

We had a hard time agreeing on what we were actually talking about and spent time developing alternative vocabularies that made even less sense than the terms we were trying to understand. Ultimately a lot of team members walked away from those conversations frustrated.

That seemed like a first strike.

Though frustrated, we weren’t ready to give up.  We decided to proceed with “doing” agile versus “talking” about agile.  Given our need to find the “magic pivot” we pursued a 3-month effort to identify new program and revenue models.

We quickly stood up four cross-departmental teams whose mandate was to pursue design thinking and agile product development to come up with viable program/revenue models we could launch at the end of three months.  The teams worked hard, built a lot of camaraderie, and for the most part had fun.

The outcomes were mixed. We jumped so quickly into “doing” and didn’t really develop the technical knowledge and skills of design thinking and agile product development. The limited preparation and training led to limited results. We didn’t find the big pivot, but we did accomplish a robust experience of agile that helped those involve better understand the concepts and how to apply them.

That seemed like strike two.

In August as the teams were winding down their agile product development work, we decided to pursue a more comprehensive strategic planning effort.  We needed some intensive thinking about our future, the future of exchanges and what role we should play in a new world order.

In our strategic discussion with our key stakeholders the same theme of the needing to be agile, adaptable, and innovative resurfaced and became one of our strategic pillars, summarized as the following:

Build a learning culture that fosters innovation, resilience and adaptability and build the capacity of staff for innovation and agile program development. 

With two strikes already on the books, we decided to double-down on agile and take it to the next level by investing in staff training and development on both agile program management and design thinking across the organization.

We turned to our cross-departmental team structure (as that was successful) and provided them a mandate to advance the goals in the strategic plan, giving them autonomy to prioritize what steps should come first. We then brought in an outside trainer and coach to work with them on agile project management. We started with a series of trainings, then let them work through the methodology with the coach. The teams worked using agile for three months, presenting to a steering committee on a weekly basis.

Last week, I asked the product owners to present their deliverables to our board of directors during our annual spring meeting.  They did a great job and I was so proud of the learning and growth we’ve experienced by failing AND succeeding together.

Overall, we learned from the first series of strikes and ultimately hit a homerun with this process. We have built a deep camaraderie among staff who don’t normally work together. I believe this spirit is invaluable to rebuilding our organization. As I look back at this journey – I think it is important to highlight a few key lessons and I welcome any learnings or questions you may have too!

  • One of the core tenets of agile project management is to fail fast. That is a necessary part of the process. Our first two attempts I referred to as strikes, were critical in getting to the homerun. Without those lessons, we would not have been able to get to the place we are today.
  • Bringing in outside training and coaching was a game changer. The skills required for agile project management are very technical. Having this critical guidance made a huge difference in the successes we eventually realized.
  • Developing champions and early adopters of a new strategy is so important. Once you have a core set of staff that sit in various places throughout the organization who know, understand and have executed agile project management – it begins to seep into the organizational and soon, everyone starts time blocking meetings and having retrospectives.
  • Knowing when to deploy it is key. You need to make a distinction between agile mindset and agile methodology. The two are interconnected. It’s hard to deploy agile methodology without an agile mindset, but you can have an agile mindset without deploying agile methodology.

We just completed a set of trainings on design thinking to help us ideate new program, service and revenue models that align to our mission and new strategic direction. It’s exciting to bring new learnings to life and we are looking forward to co-creating opportunities with our partners, alumni and supporters!

Stay tuned~

Giving Spotlight: Nancy Mancilla

Nancy Mancilla exemplifies how international exchanges develop active and engaged global citizens both in their local communities and in their alumni communities, as well as the impact their work can have on a global scale. Nancy’s journey to being the CEO and Founder of ISOS Group is full of experience working with refugees and a desire to understand her place in the world to leading the future of sustainability. Read on to hear why Nancy gives her time, talent and financial contributions to the Cultural Vistas community.

Name: Nancy Mancilla

Relationship: Cultural Vistas Alumni Council + Alumna of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) 1999-2000

Current location: San Diego, California

Occupation: CEO + Founder of ISOS Group

Nancy, you are a founding member of the Cultural Vistas Alumni Council – how did this come about?

In my work travels, I always make a point to connect with fellow exchange alumni and back in 2015, I stopped into the Cultural Vistas office in Washington D.C. while in town for a conference to ask how I could get involved. I’ve been part of a number of start-up advisory roles and when the opportunity to join the inaugural Alumni Council came out of that, I said yes. I wanted to learn more about other exchanges and feel that alumni have a lot of shared passions and experiences that could be brought together. I love planting seeds and cross-pollinating ideas – it’s in my nature!

I was the first Alumni Council Co-Chair when the advisory board kicked off in 2016 and I’m proud to say that we have come a long way in terms of creating an engaged group of alumni ambassadors. I’ve stayed on for an additional term to support the council as they look to expand their activities alongside Cultural Vistas new strategic plan.

Nancy – thanks for all you do, we are so glad you could stay on and help guide this important work. What is personally rewarding for you in terms of giving back to the international exchange community?

Growing up I didn’t have role models for going to college outside of my teachers. Being Mexican-American, however, I was able to travel to Mexico City to visit family and grew an interest in politics which I wanted to study in college. Once there, I was attracted to study international relations because I understood that as a Mexican-American, I was also a part of the world and should view politics through this lens.

Studying international relations during undergrad led me to meet likeminded people from around the world but it was my first German boyfriend that inspired my interest in German culture (and punctuality) which was the impetus for applying to CBYX. Now, 20 years later I want everyone to have this experience which has shaped the way I work and live. I enjoy hosting international interns, my company benefits so much by having them and we never pass up an opportunity to host. I also stay connected to my fellow CBYX alumni – my cohort just celebrated our 20th anniversary virtually this past year. It is truly rewarding to be part of this community.

You studied international relations and during your year on CBYX worked with refugees of the Balkan War through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees – how did this experience lead you to a career in sustainability?

As an intern at Raphaels-Werk, a refugee assistance and resettlement organization implementing a UNHCR mandate in Hamburg, it was my responsibility to record the stories of refugees of the war in the former Yugoslavia. This work required a lot of mental stamina and I learned to listen and take careful notes. It was also my first experience living in another country so I was simultaneously adjusting to being in a new culture. Ultimately, I worked to help settle refugees in the U.S., Canada and Australia. This experience led me to do a Master’s program in the Netherlands so that I could be close to the Hague and attend the War Crimes Tribunals. As part of my field work, I visited the towns torn apart by this conflict which gave me a perspective on the environmental impact of war. I also worked with a bank that looked at the economic impact of sustainable development. I began to make the connection between sustainable development and rebuilding war-torn communities.

When I returned to the U.S. I started a second Master’s in Public Service where I expanded my work in sustainable development. Today, I run ISOS Group – a sustainability standards consultancy – working with companies to ensure standards and empowering professionals in sustainable development around the world. It has been incredible to work with so many companies investing in this work and to be part of this movement for many years. A lot of the passion and resilience stems from my time on CBYX and learning to adjust to news ways and customs, it was invaluable.

What excites you about the future of work and the future of international exchange?

This past year, while challenging in so many ways especially as a mother and a business owner, was also inspiring for sustainability. We really saw companies double down on their commitment to move sustainability standards forward with the best of intentions. That can only be something to be excited about. Furthermore, the virtual space gives us the opportunity to connect our work and gain insight from around the world – it’s really activating my global network in new ways. This is the future of work and I’m glad that this overlaps with my exchange experience and the global mindset I’ve gained through that – we are able to be more nimble and adaptable with our growth.

For international exchange, I’m excited to see more opportunity for access because this is such a vital experience. When we work with people we see the difference in those who have had these experiences – it makes a big difference. What Cultural Vistas is doing to expand access, invest in alumni, grow global networks, and create more global leaders in their communities is such an important tool for building authentic change and lasting peace around the world. I’m excited to be a part of it and am at a point in life where it’s hard to consider “what’s next?” The only thing that comes to mind is a vacation; preferably with a hammock involved.

Thank you Nancy, for all that you do and all that you give back – you are an inspiration and we are honored to have your leadership! Join Nancy and help us grow alumni giving as we invest in the future of international exchange. Donate to join our giving community today.

Collaborating in Crisis: Lessons from a Transatlantic Test

The Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX) is a fellowship funded by the German Bundestag and U.S. Department of State that annually provides 75 American and 75 German young professionals between the ages of 18½–24 the opportunity to spend one year in each other’s countries, studying, interning, and living with hosts on a cultural immersion program. Separate CBYX programs not administered by Cultural Vistas include similar programming for high school and vocational students.

CBYX has weathered many challenges in its 37 years, but nothing like the one on March 12, 2020. Ironically, the same day Cultural Vistas held an organization-wide remote work trial, the U.S. State Department and German Parliament made the difficult decision to curtail the 2019-20 CBYX program due to the emerging pandemic. Each of our 150 participants on both sides of the Atlantic had to return home immediately. As the global pandemic worsened, the 2020-21 CBYX program would pivot to a fully virtual format.

Cultural Vistas Senior Director Dr. Daniel Villanueva and member of the CBYX for Young Professionals College Coordinators Council and merit scholarships advisor, Dr. Lori A. Felton (American University, Washington DC), here take stock and share key lessons learned a year on.

Read more of “Collaborating in Crisis: Lessons from a Transatlantic Test”

Giving Spotlight: Malia Simon

Malia Simon is an environmental studies major at Susquehanna University and a part of the Class of 2019 of Cultural Vistas Fellows. She spent summer 2019 in Hong Kong interning at CarbonCare InnoLab where she was involved with communication and advocacy efforts to create awareness and contribute to solving global climate challenges – read on to hear what inspires Malia about giving back through the Cultural Vistas community.

Name: Malia Simon

Relationship: Alumna of Cultural Vistas Fellowship Program

Current location: Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania

Occupation: Graduating Environmental Studies Major at Susquehanna University

What inspired you to participate in the Cultural Vistas Fellowship?

The ability to expand my horizons as a student, contribute to my Diné community from my international internship experience and overall understand how I could be a contributor to a network of like-minded, global citizens inspired me to apply for the Cultural Vistas Fellowship. I am a first-generation college student; the opportunity to grow not only as a student but professionally as I learned about my future goals and aspirations overseas was the greatest opportunity of my life. Hong Kong helped me understand how I could help my community back home through policy work and advocacy for Indian Country outside of environmental advocacy, though that is my passion. Living outside of the U.S. allowed me to view the intricate government-to-government relationship from an alternative perspective. This fellowship shaped my lifelong goals to be a positive role model for Native youth who want to make a change in their own communities starting at home or aiming for enriching abroad experiences overseas, too.

Read more of “Giving Spotlight: Malia Simon”

Alumni Spotlight: Jocelyn Nitta Builds Skills with the Virtual Internship Corps

The COVID-19 crisis continues to shape our world and future. Restrictions to international travel have limited opportunities for public for public diplomacy and international exchange at a time when it is most needed.

With the support of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, Cultural Vistas launched the Virtual Internship Corps, providing young professionals in the U.S. with the opportunity to develop their transatlantic networks and enhance their professional development. For the Fall 2020 semester, twenty-five emerging leaders were selected to take part in an immersive virtual internship program. One of whom, Jocelyn Nitta, reflects on how this virtual experience impacted her view on German culture, the future of work, and democracy.

Name: Jocelyn Nitta

Program: Virtual Internship Corps 2020

Current location: Michigan

Virtual internship placement: Global Innovation Gathering: Careables project

Read more of “Alumni Spotlight: Jocelyn Nitta Builds Skills with the Virtual Internship Corps”