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Commerce helped UMKC be more Agile — and the outcomes were tremendous

Commerce Bank team members know Agile methodology as a management approach employed by project teams focused on continuous collaboration. Designed to help organizations adapt to change and complete projects more quickly and efficiently, Agile methodology breaks large projects down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Its concepts and tools have proven valuable for Commerce — and for an important nonprofit institution in Kansas City.

For months, a working group at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) was trying to build out a concept they believed their current and future students needed: a program that would help teach humanities students how to integrate digital methods into their original research, building their abilities to share stories and histories in ways that appeal to modern audiences.

However, the team, comprised of professors from several departments, found progress to be slow. “We were talking about establishing what is now the UMKC Center for Digital and Public Humanities and floating ideas around, and we worked on it in fits and starts,” says Diane Mutti Burke, a professor in UMKC’s history department and one of the Center’s co-directors. “We would make progress, and then we wouldn’t.”

A conversation with Commerce Bank’s Charitable Trusts and Foundations (CTF) group served as the spark that would lead to a breakthrough. Carrie Stewart, a CTF assistant director and program officer, was part of the team who worked with the UMKC faculty team on funding for the Digital Humanities program.

“As we were talking about the development of this program with them, we would sometimes reference the Agile methodology, or use the terminology associated with it,” says Stewart. “It caught the attention of the UMKC team, who started asking about it. And we all agreed the team could benefit greatly from having us train them on how to use Agile.”

“Agile is all about helping people work together better, which is why we use it so widely at Commerce,” says Whitney VanderStel, an assistant vice president on Commerce’s Agile Enterprise Solutions team. “We all have different ways of working, and there can be a lot of nuance involved. Agile helps teams identify ways to work together effectively and keep up with the pace of change and ambiguity that we see in the world today.”

VanderStel and Paul Carter, an assistant vice president and senior Agile coach on Commerce’s Agile Enterprise Solutions team, lead a group that teaches Agile concepts to others within the bank. “Whether it’s used on an individual level, a team or department level, or across an entire enterprise, Agile ways of working and Agile thinking can help us get the results we desire,” says Carter.

While not a regular business activity, Commerce coaches have recently worked with other nonprofit organizations to help them learn and adopt the Agile methodology. Last year, Commerce provided Agile training to REACH Healthcare Foundation’s Centering Black Voices cohort, and the team has held sessions for the Mattie Rhodes Center and others.

“It’s important for Commerce to help nonprofits in this way,” says Carter. “It’s about helping these organizations better serve their customers, and when that happens, whole communities are uplifted. A rising tide lifts all ships, and when we can support nonprofits in that way, it’s a reward for us in and of itself.”

As VanderStel explains, the Commerce team’s approach to teaching Agile to nonprofits is very collaborative. “We don’t come in and tell people how to do their work,” she says. “We present them with ideas, ask powerful questions, and create an environment in which they learn to solve the challenges they have at hand. We help them work together in a way where they can decide how to leverage Agile concepts and practices to overcome current challenges and achieve their goals.”

The UMKC team had a very positive experience with the training, which took place in January 2022. “The feedback was unbelievable — just as we’ve seen with other nonprofits who have undergone the training that the Commerce team delivers,” says Stewart. “I’ve been excited to see the way UMKC has used Agile to such great effect. After the training, you could see the difference immediately. I was blown away.”

Jeff Rydberg-Cox, a professor of classical and ancient studies in UMKC’s English department and one of the Center for Digital and Public Humanities’ co-directors, believes the training had a big impact. “I wish I had undergone this training ten years earlier,” he says. “The difference has been huge. It really helped us align our vision and move forward.”

Mutti Burke concurs. “The training helped us get organized around what our aspirations were and what we actually wanted to do,” she says. “It really helped us clarify the structure of the Center and its mission. Working as a small team alongside Paul and Whitney to imagine what this project could be was really an incredible gift.”

Adopting the Agile philosophy proved to be a new way of working for the UMKC team. “People tend to work independently in an academic setting,” says Mutti Burke. “We learned to work as an effective team, meeting every two weeks – with many of us meeting more often than that — to push things forward in ways that weren’t happening before we did the training.”

The team at UMKC made remarkable progress over a short period of time. They developed a detailed grant proposal for the Center, built a new website for it over the summer of 2022, and during the 2022–23 academic year, developed the faculty fellow program. “We focused on getting the Center up and running first, then continued building from there,” says Rydberg-Cox.

Tamara Falicov, the dean of UMKC’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences (which houses the Center for Digital and Public Humanities) started her role in August 2022, just as the Center was getting established. She witnessed the impact the Agile philosophy was having on the project team and was impressed.

“I believe it can serve as a template for all the scaling up we want to do,” Falicov says. “We’re going to expand the Center, and the more people we have who are trained on Agile, the better we’ll be prepared for what’s to come.”

Falicov has been so appreciative of the Agile philosophy that she scheduled additional training for others in the school — herself included. “It will be useful for me as an administrator to understand that there are ways to organize in a more structural way, in a more organizational fashion, and really use some of those tools,” she says. “It’s all about agility, being flexible.”

Commerce’s Agile training is one of many forms of support the bank and its CTF group provide for UMKC. The strong relationship between the two organizations was recently recognized when the UMKC Trustees named Commerce the recipient of its annual Community Partnership Award. The award is a nod to the bank’s consistent support, which has included scholarship and student support, building renovation funding, faculty research, events sponsorship and academic programming.

VanderStel has been thrilled to see the impact Commerce’s support has had at UMKC. “If we can help others work better together, they’re going to achieve the results they’re aiming for, and that helps us all be better,” she says. “We’re delighted when we have opportunities like this to share and inspire others in our community.”

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