Creative approaches that businesses use to develop new products can also be channeled toward solving long-standing and intractable social issues. A case in point is the recent effort to house chronically homeless veterans in the U.S., as thousands of soldiers return to civilian life after extended tours overseas.
Back in 2009, U.S. Veteran Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric Shinseki sparked these efforts by challenging federal agencies and communities to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Since that time, leaders at the VA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Interagency Council on Homelessness and other agencies have been experimenting with ways to help communities respond to the challenge. At the Rapid Results Institute, a nonprofit spin-off of our firm, Schaffer Consulting, we recently joined the 100,000 Homes Campaign (on the Community Solutions team) to help federal agencies organize Rapid Results Housing Boot Camps in San Diego, Orlando, and Houston.
During these Boot Camps, teams from 4-5 cities set "unreasonable" 100-day goals to accelerate the pace of housing chronically homeless veterans. Most of these teams included case managers and homeless program managers from the local VA, HUD field officers, and representatives from the Public Housing Authority, the local NGOs working on ending homelessness, and the Mayor's office. And as The New York Times recently reported, the outcome has been dramatic. In New Orleans for example, the team worked to simplify paperwork needed to process a veteran's application for subsidized housing, and unified the process across several regional and local agencies. In Detroit and Houston, teams set up a one-stop shop for homeless veterans, so their requirements for receiving support are completed in one day. In Atlanta, the team set up a competition among VA case managers to incentivize them to focus their efforts even more sharply on the most vulnerable veterans. Nine of the thirteen participating cities made dramatic gains; and four of them set a new benchmark for housing chronically homeless veterans – averaging more than one veteran housed each day during the 100-day period.
The program's success indicates that they're innovating – and executing on that innovation – the right way. And corporate and social organizations alike have something to learn from this surge in performance:
First, innovation requires the mobilization of an ecosystem. Most organizations are structured to perform today's work, and not designed to do something radically different. This means that innovative results require action on a large scale: bringing together the right people and completely reconfiguring resources and assets. In the work with veterans, plans invariably involved close collaboration and coordination between federal agency leaders, their field staff, local housing authorities, city officials, local NGOs, and other stakeholders. In several communities, for example, the teams got authorization to co-locate agency reps to improve communications and act as envoys for veterans to more easily navigate the system. The ecosystem also included private sector foundations, including Chase, Starr, and Home Depot that joined forces to enable the teams to come together.
However, bringing together people who haven't previously worked together is tricky territory. That's why it is critical to have a common goal that different parties can own and rally around. The 100-day time frame created a sense of urgency – and it also made it easy for team members to temporarily suspend some of the assumptions and mental models that held them back in the past. This spurred a flurry of rapid experimentation with new solutions and new ways of working with each other – and with political leaders. For example, at the Boot Camps each team mapped out the maze of procedures that a chronically homeless veteran has to navigate to get housed, and decided how they would simplify these steps to achieve their goal. They also actively coordinated their outreach and targeting efforts so they could locate chronically homeless veterans, and more importantly win their trust, so veterans would feel comfortable giving the official system a try. Most of these decisions were put to the test in the first 30 days of the implementation period – and they were adjusted several times during the 100 days.
The teams also had to persist during the 100-day implementation period – in spite of the difficulties they encountered – sustaining a momentum of results, creative energy, and collaboration. They did this by harnessing the power of peer pressure and peer support – through cross-learning, emulation and competition across all thirteen teams. Various mechanisms were used to deliberately build this into the journey of the Rapid Results teams, including organizing team leaders into small learning cohorts that shared experiences with each other every two weeks.
Innovation in any setting isn't easy. But if the experience with veteran homelessness is any guide, then mobilizing the ecosystem, rallying around challenging and exciting goals, and harnessing the power of peer groups are three key factors for making it happen.
This post was co-authored with Nadim Matta, a managing partner in Schaffer Consulting and president of the Rapid Results Institute.
Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Harvard Business Review.