12 Reflections on Outcome Based Thinking & Ending Homelessness

We have had several assignments lately that have required thinking through how organizations are designed relative to the pursuit of ending homelessness. If there is a common theme amongst these projects it is that the organizations or communities are not designed to get the outcome that they wish they were getting. Furthermore, there are a number of things that get in their way of optimal success. So, I wanted to explore with you 12 ideas and strategies related to ending homelessness using outcome-based thinking.


1. Name the outcome you want

There is beauty in stating the obvious. This is one of those life instances. Name the difference you want to see if all you are doing to end homelessness is realized. You can do this by parts of the service delivery system (outreach, shelters, Rapid ReHousing, Permanent Supportive Housing, etc.) or in relation to other partners, or even the people that use the services.

The problem I see? We are quick to only point out the tasks without asking ourselves what difference there will be if all of those tasks are realized. And on the flipside of this, we rarely break down the outcome into enough meaningful tasks where it actually feels like progress is being made fast enough.


2. Take out the trash

Noise. Distractions. Garbage.

You have to take out the trash - get rid of the ideas, work and energy sucks that get in the way - if you want to have enough energy to achieve success. You have to decide what you are NOT going to pay attention to; what you are not going to do; what is not worthy of your attention.

Then deliberately and explicitly indicate your intentions. Taking out the trash is bold and necessary for communities to succeed – especially those that have been trying to be all things to all people for far too long.


3. Move from vague to specific – as fast as makes sense

You know how to move from vague to specific rather quickly in your personal life, but fail to put it into practice in a dedicated way in your work of ending homelessness. Let me give you an example from your personal life:

  • I am hungry
  • I want Italian food
  • I want pasta
  • I want take-out
  • I want the food from Volpe’s

See, you can go from being hungry to deciding what type of food and from where via take-out relatively quickly. Those are the sort of everyday quick decisions you make. They are generally fast. You know there are decisions in your life that may not be as fast as deciding what’s for dinner and from where, but that you still make relatively quickly.

Let me give you an example of moving from vague to specific in our line of work:

  • I want to end homelessness
  • I want to focus on unsheltered homelessness
  • I want to understand what our last five PIT Count and street outreach data shows
  • I want more people housed from living outdoors starting with the sickest and most vulnerable people that have been homeless longest
  • I want the people housed from outdoors to be housed quickly
  • I want our community priority for PSH in our coordinated entry to reflect the sickest and most vulnerable living outdoors

Get out of the mindset of everything being too big, needing extensive processing or considerable deliberation. Keep moving from vague to specific in every single part of your homeless service system. And yes, you can move from vague to specific on more than one area of interest at a time.


4. Name the moving parts

A pet peeve of mine is when I ask how someone is doing, and their response is “busy”. “Busy” is a state of being, not an emotion. What I think they are trying to convey is that they have lots on the go, though I don’t know how they feel about it.

What I have seen recently in the organizations and communities we have been working with is that they also seem to be in a perpetual state of being busy, but struggle to clearly articulate all of the things they are busy with – and they can’t seem to separate out administrative moving parts (for example: HR; budget), from operational moving parts (for example: staff schedule; ordering supplies), from project moving parts (for example: a new shelter diversion pilot; a discharge initiative with the local hospital). And because they cannot name all of the moving parts, they struggle to prioritize, to know where to put their energy, to take out the trash as I discussed earlier, and how to celebrate success.


5. Name what you are waiting for

A number of the things we do require input, sign-off, or other tasks and activities being completed by others. If you don’t name what you need from whom by which time, you might as well be waiting for Godot. The answers to what you are waiting for do not self-resolve. And let’s face it – what may be a priority for you does not mean it is a priority for the person you are waiting for, and that may or may not be outside your influence or control.

So, focus on what you CAN control. If you name what you actually need from whom and when, you have the ability to establish priorities and work flow around that rather than being in an unmanageable situation in spite of it.


6. Growth does not equal success

We have seen many organizations grow. And grow. And grow. Some of this is seemingly justifiable, but a lot of this is not. More staff and a big budget only makes sense if the existing staff and budget are used to maximum effectiveness. The problem these days is that every new initiative or new piece of regulation is interpreted as needing more staff rather than re-profiling existing staff differently.

We also need some creative destruction as part of the annual workflow – what can we commit to stop doing in order to free up the staff and money to do something new and innovative. In other words, we can continue to see innovation and champions of new ideas with the resources we have, rather than thinking innovation can only happen if we have more resources.


7. Don’t waste time chasing what others have

Competition kills progress for most organizations and communities. If you are naturally competitive, you would, of course, thrive when compared to others and constantly be in search of how you could have all of the resources that others have to do their work. But if you are not a naturally competitive person (which, let’s be clear, "competition" often translates to “be just like them, but better”), then the comparison mantra is a sham.

You need to be the best organization/community in YOUR context. Your best will be influenced by factors that are completely irrelevant in comparing yourself to others and then chasing after the resources that they have to do their work. Too many organizations and communities waste time and energy chasing what they don’t have without making sure they are doing dynamite work with the resources they do have at their fingertips.


8. Be a hope engineer through innovation

Innovators are hope engineers. They lead us to a place where we believe improvement is possible. They have no illusions of getting it right all of the time. Heck, what they really prove is that you can fail a lot with the best of intentions.

Engineers of hope use innovation to find solutions. They don’t waste time naming problems that they cannot fix or are outside their control to fix. They focus on that which they can actually influence.

This person is very different from the charismatic leader who keeps people’s spirits up in difficult times. That person can also be helpful. And many organizations and communities have generally optimistic people. What is missing in most of the places we have been working is innovators. “Some Other Place” is not the name of a community or organization, and they don’t always have the answer to the thing that needs innovation in your place.


9. Be bad at some things, and just own it

Let. Go. Of. Perfectionism.

It is about time we acknowledge there are some things that you, your organization, and your community just suck at. Own that shit. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t think that working harder is going to be the answer to sucking, because that could just mean more effort put into sucking larger.

Imagine the community or organization that had the chutzpah to say, “Hey, we really stink at figuring out day services, so we are going to stop working on that right now and put that energy into being better at Rapid ReHousing because we seem to be doing some decent work there and could get even better at it.”

At the personal level, delegate to the strengths of others. Publicly own that some elements of ending homelessness are not your strength. Ask for help. Don’t be ashamed that you are not amazing at everything. Nobody is.

At the organization level, if there is another organization that gets results better than yours over and over again, despite your program improvement efforts, then let go. It may be better that the other organization does more of that type of work with better results than you just getting your piece of the pie but sucking at it.


10. Take walks of gratitude

The heaviest thing to lift is your own spirits when they are down. This work is hard. You are bound to be rattled and pulled down from time to time. In most of our work lately we have struggled to find an intentional process of finding joy in the work and being grateful for what is working well.

We recommend the 10 minute daily walk of gratitude. Every afternoon take 10 minutes to go for a walk and just focus on that which you are grateful for in your community’s or organization’s work to end homelessness. The hard work becomes easier if you take time out of every single day to find something to be grateful for in the work. It will also make the down times less frequent, and the Herculean task of lifting your own spirits will be more rare.


11. Expectations influence experiences

You have heard of self-fulfilling prophecy, and this is really what the focus is here. Too many organizations and communities lately fail to realize that they expectations influence the experience – or another way of looking at it, attitude influences outputs and outcomes. Think your Coordinated Entry system is going to be messy out the gate? It will be. Think your PIT Count is getting stale without enthusiastic volunteers, then that is what you are going to get.

It is said that systems are perfectly designed to get the outcomes they get. I believe the same can be said for the emotional experience of our work. The lower your expectations, the worse the experience. When lives are on the line in our work it seems incredibly selfish to lower expectations.


12. Don’t fear a different, outsider perspective

Of course you don’t know the answers to all of your organization’s or community’s problems. Heck, you probably don’t even know the questions you would need to ask yourself to even think about the problems you have differently. You and your colleagues may have spent hours upon hours in meeting after meeting; established subcommittee after subcommittee. But if you don’t have fresh thinking or an alternate perspective that comes from having a different, outsider perspective engage with you, you will be at a loss to see all that you need to see, to know all you need to know, to think all you need to think – and fail in some instances to isolate a number of possible solutions to what confronts you. Let go of isolationism. Find that local person that doesn’t know your business well to ask the questions or engage in problems differently – the local outsider. Or bring in someone from a different community to help you gain a different perspective on the problems you have been unable to solve.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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