How Commerce helped the Normandy Schools Collaborative become more Agile
Sara Foster had a hunch that the Normandy Schools Collaborative would benefit from an introduction to the Agile methodology. Foster, the executive vice president of talent and corporate administration at Commerce Bank, has been on Normandy’s school board since 2017, and became its president in mid-2019. She had plenty of experience with the benefits of Agile, as it has been used successfully at Commerce for more than seven years and was interested in seeing how it could be applied at Normandy Schools.
If you aren’t familiar with Agile, it’s a collaborative approach to work that helps teams break large projects into smaller tasks that can be done quickly. It puts a heavy emphasis on prioritization so that teams are able to start and finish the most important tasks, keeping projects moving at all times. “Agile is focused on continuous improvement based on customer feedback,” says Paul Carter, an enterprise Agile coach at Commerce. “Teams that use it are able to quickly respond to change while delivering high levels of productivity.”
Many at Commerce credit the organization’s use of Agile for helping it rapidly adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, during which the bank had to make enormous changes in a short amount of time. Much of Commerce’s workforce shifted quickly to working remotely, including its customer contact center, and some team members even changed roles temporarily. “Hundreds of people pivoted from their normal work to helping process Paycheck Protection Program loans over the course of just a few days,” says Carter. “It would have been much harder to do that without the flexibility Agile provides.”
Foster believed that Agile could help Normandy Schools. After losing its state accreditation in 2014, the collaborative went through a tough period, but emerged to regain partial accreditation in January 2018. Foster thought that using Agile could help improve productivity as Normandy Schools continued serving its students and building toward full accreditation.
Foster collaborated with Normandy’s superintendent to schedule a day-long session, during which an expert from the bank would introduce a team of the school district’s senior leaders to Agile and provide them with the tools to do more with it on their own. “The idea was to help them prioritize tasks and complete them with urgency,” Foster says. “The leaders at the collaborative were intrigued by it and invited their entire expanded leadership team.”
The session was held in December 2019, led by Carter. “It was a fantastic day,” he says. “All of the leadership was there, and they loved it. We got a lot of feedback coming out of the training that indicated a lot of excitement.”
Unfortunately, just a few short months later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Like most other schools, Normandy had to pivot on the fly to a remote learning environment, and leadership had to manage an unprecedented amount of upheaval all at once.
For one of the senior leaders in the Agile training session, however, the pandemic showed the value of the methodology. Teri Green, Normandy’s director of information technology, had learned about Agile earlier in her career and was a big proponent of it. She says the approach had been a big help when her team led an overhaul of the collaborative’s network infrastructure and security protocols in recent years.
Green says the training session led by Commerce inspired her to take her usage of Agile to a higher level. “I learned about a lot of very useful tools and exercises that I was able to take back and use with my team,” she says. “I learned how to encourage others to give our team – and me – some help when we needed it.”
The team’s commitment to being ready for change, working proactively and moving quickly meant that when the COVID-19 crisis hit, everyone was able to spring into action. “We were able to get a lot done in a very short period of time,” Green says. “We all started working remotely right away, and we were able to get the technology in place to allow teaching to happen remotely as well.”
Green adds that the Agile methodology helped her team be proactive about applying for grants that helped secure 700 additional Chromebooks to be distributed to students, as well as hotspots to provide both students and teachers with internet access at home. The team also established a “Genius Bar” at Normandy High School to help students, parents and teachers learn to use and troubleshoot the new tools.
Foster was impressed with Green and her team. “What they did in such a short period of time was incredible,” she says. “They quickly figured out how to secure funding for cameras to put in classrooms for remote learning. The cameras allow students to view their teachers as if they’re in the room with them, seated at their desks. What they did just blows me away. It was a crazy amount of change.”
Green says that she has kept in touch with Carter since the training session last year, and she credits his encouragement with helping her decide to earn her certification as a scrum master. In the Agile methodology, a scrum master is someone who is responsible for establishing an environment in which the team can be most effective and clears any obstacles or distractions that might hinder the team’s ability to complete its assigned tasks.
Earning the scrum master certification, Green says, has already made a difference with her team. “I’m often encouraging the people on my team to get more training and earn certifications, and by doing the same thing myself, I’m showing that we’re all in this together,” she says. “People become greater when they work together, and this certification has helped us do exactly that.”
Green notes that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the months ahead may be challenging, but she believes she and her team will be ready. “Right now, I think it’s important that schools not allow fear to disable them,” she says. “In some ways, COVID has been both a blessing and a curse, because it has forced schools to move forward. They’re realizing technology is a powerful tool, and with the right training, it can have a lot of impact.”
Foster agrees, and she believes Agile has played an important role in Normandy School’s readiness for the future. “There’s a lot of change happening all at once,” she says. “Teri’s usage of Agile has absolutely helped on the technology front, and that has translated into significant benefits for Normandy’s students during this time of remote learning. It’s exciting to see.”
Carter says that helping others benefit from Agile in this way is the reason Commerce shares its expertise. “It’s great to give back in that way,” he says. “We want to do some good in the community by helping people collaborate and succeed, and this is one way we do that.”
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