Experimenting with Agile in the Nonprofit World

How do you innovate in crisis, in an industry that relies on travel and face-to-face exchanges to survive?

People are cautious about going out to go to the grocery store. The thought of traveling to a different country seems like a far-off fantasy right now. In before-times, I would have just been getting back from a two-week trip to Amsterdam and Germany for my best friend’s wedding. That has now been postponed until next summer, and even the rescheduled date is still tentative.

The international exchange world has been hit particularly hard by the almost complete halt on international travel. Cultural Vistas and organizations like it need to work proactively to generate new business ideas in a world that will not see travel resume to 2019 levels until 2023.

Applying Agile Approaches Outside of Tech

The Agile method, most widely used in tech, is an approach to project management that allows implementers to respond proactively to unpredictability. In recent years, the application of Agile approaches has expanded to other departments and industries, from marketing to strategic planning, and more. The basic idea is that you create a minimum viable product (MVP), see what sticks, and can be brought to market easily. Then, you go back to refine and upgrade while you’re making a profit on what you’ve already produced.

Cultural Vistas decided to test this methodology out on a “new ventures” taskforce initiative this May. The goal was to work in small teams of five to generate and pitch a new business idea each week to a steering committee of executives and the rest of the taskforce. Ideas deemed viable by the committee would get a green light to proceed for another week of refinement. The rest were sent back to the drawing board to come up with a new idea for the next pitch session.

agile method time for change

Rewiring our Work Brains

This was a completely new way for Cultural Vistas staff to work. Most of us struggled at first to get into the flow of the process. We typically work in silos and most of our teams operate in a relatively hierarchical fashion. It’s hard to feel empowered to self-direct when someone else has always done the bulk of the directing for you.

Daily “stand-up” meetings were tough to keep to the expected 15 minutes. There was a lot of pressure to gel quickly with teammates who we may never have even met before. For example, my team has two staff members in Washington, DC (including me), and three staff in New York.

We Learned to Adapt

In a way, we had to recondition our minds to accept that mistakes were acceptable or expected. We congratulated ourselves if we found out what didn’t work quickly. Discovering mistakes quickly meant we could move on to a different idea. We began to accept the ambiguity of the process and the uncertainty of knowing that our pitch may be rejected. Our consolation was that we only put a week’s worth of work into the pitch.

It was also a great opportunity to collaborate with those in the other office. I’m grateful I’ve had the chance to work closely with and get to know some of my New York colleagues and understand their strengths. I learned that one is a skilled academic and researcher, with strong connections to German organizations. Another colleague is business-minded and quick to generate new ideas. These lessons-learned about my colleagues, and the trust built between us, can only help in future cross-departmental collaboration efforts.

Despite our challenges, each team did show up to the weekly pitch with something new to put forward. Several had the opportunity to advance for at least one week, looking into how to further prove their proposed idea.

My group was fortunate enough to, in our final week, propose an idea that stuck with the steering committee. We are moving forward to secure several customers for phase two of this business generation process, which focuses on proving the concept in the market.

One of the biggest lessons we learned through this business development process was that we needed to do direct market research. This research would help us understand how much real-life customers would pay for our product. Early research allowed us to confirm that this project could succeed in the real world while bringing value to the organization.

Final Thoughts on Agile

In all, the Agile process is one that will take some getting used to. We will probably need some formal training if Cultural Vistas continues to apply it to team functions. So far, it’s been a great learning experience and a wonderful opportunity to connect with staff across teams. It’s also given me a new way of considering how work can be accomplished. I’m very curious to see which programs and teams use this process next!

The future is unknown, but Cultural Vistas continues to embrace change. Adopting new ways to approach challenges, like the Agile method, will help us approach unpredictability head on to serve our stakeholders.