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
- able to move quickly and easily.
- 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!