The 100,000 homes campaign: A model for scaling up excellence

This is a true story that more people ought to hear. It contains numerous lessons for any leader, organization, or social movement about how to spread something good from the few to the many. It affirms my faith in humanity. And it just might do the same for you.

In a nutshell, here is what happened. In 2003, West Point graduate and former U.S. Army officer Becky Margiotta began leading an effort to reduce the homelessness problem in New York City’s Time Square. Becky was hired by Rosanne Haggerty, who founded the nonprofit Common Ground in 1990 to create housing for people experiencing homelessness. Becky and her team spent five years working on the Street to Home Initiative in Times Square. By 2008, the mindset, skills, and methods the team developed enabled them to find homes for 49 of the 50 homeless people living in Times Square. In 2010, Haggerty and Margiotta launched The 100,000 Homes Campaign–their plan was to spread what they had learned in Times Square to other cities. The goal was to find homes for 100,000 Americans experiencing chronic homelessness. The Campaign announced that they reached this goal on June 10, 2014.

Thanks to a wonderful team at the Stanford Business School, the twists and turns of this story are captured in a detailed multi-media case study that was completed about a year ago. The case was written and guided by Davina Drabkin. The video producer is John Jamieson. Stanford Professors Sarah SouleHuggy Rao, and I instigated and (lightly) guided the development. Access was restricted to our students until now, as it is designed to spark class discussion. But thanks to the generosity of the Stanford Business School, it now available to everyone for free. You can find The 100,000 Homes Campaign case here. Because this digital case was a prototype, the navigation can be counterintuitive and trying at times. But it is worth it — there is so much to learn and so many examples of what happens when people with noble intentions are blessed with skill and persistence. It warms my heart.

While I can’t capture all the key lessons from this nuanced case in a single post or article, here are five of my favorites. I suspect that you will be drawn to different highlights and inferences.

1) Where is Your Times Square?

One of the hallmarks of bad scaling in start-ups, organizational change initiatives, and social movements is that leaders and funders want go big before they know what works. Note that Becky and her team spent five years working on how to house people who were chronically homeless in Times Square before they developed a “playbook” that (they hoped) would work in other cities. When Becky teaches leaders about how to develop programs or build organizations, she cautions about impatience and asks “where is your Times Square?” As we say to Stanford students and visiting executives, “you’ve got to NAIL IT before you SCALE IT.”

This doesn’t mean that your model needs to be perfect or that it won’t change as you learn more and it is customized for different settings. But when leaders and organizations try to spread something to others that has not been proven to work in even one place, they increase the risk of a “scaling clusterfug,” as Huggy Rao and I call it.

2) Mindset Matters

Becky’s team learned to embrace the Housing First philosophy during the years that they spent in Times Square. The idea behind this philosophy–which clashes with beliefs and policies held by many politicians and activists–is that it is unwise and largely ineffective to require a person experiencing homelessness to deal with problems such as substance abuse or mental illness before they can be eligible for housing. As Becky put, “The cure for homelessness is a house.” Advocates of Housing First argue that one of the many benefits of their philosophy is that such problems are easier to deal with (for social services agencies, nonprofits, and the people in question) when people are off the streets and have a predictable and safe place to live.

Although this philosophy makes sense to me, there is also a broader lesson here about scaling that my colleague Huggy Rao observed over and over when we developed our book Scaling Up Excellence: It is much easier to grow an organization or a program when there is agreement about what constitutes good versus bad behavior, or success versus failure. When people agree, they know where to direct their attention and when they are making progress or not.

This doesn’t mean that there is a one-size-fits all mindset. What works for one organization or movement might be a disaster for another. For example, Netflix has a strong commitment to hiring and keeping “fully-formed adults” who are star performers; the company pays very well and–akin to a professional sports team–fires employees who aren’t stars or whose skills become obsolete. That philosophy works for them, but I don’t think it would be effective for McDonald‘s or the U.S. Army. The best leaders also devote close attention to when once useful mindsets start getting in the way. In the early days of Facebook, “move fast and break things” was a mantra that people lived by and it helped them grow the company. But by early 2015, CEO Mark Zuckerberg abandoned mantra and mindset. After all, “breaking things” had become too dangerous for its users and the firm’s reputation.

3) The best strategies are formed by doers and doing, not talkers and talking

Becky and her team focused on doing and learning, not on completing exhaustive strategy and planning sessions before they started experimenting and learning. They focused on light planning and heavy learning by doing in early days in Times Square and as their national campaign unfolded between 2010 and 2014. Their belief in this approach was reinforced by Joe McCannon, who had managed the 100,000 Lives Campaign between 2004 and 2006. The Campaign spread evidence-based practices to some 3100 U.S. hospitals in order to reduce preventable deaths. It focused on spreading simple and proven practices from hospitals that used them to those that did not (yet). These practices included pressing health care providers to wash their hands to stop the spread of infections. Or reminding everyone who comes in contact with a patient on a respirator–families and janitorial staff, for example, not just nurses–that the bed ought to be elevated at least 45 degrees (which reduces the risk of pneumonia). By the time the Campaign ended, researchers estimated that about 122,000 fewer deaths had occurred in U.S. hospitals.

McCannon joined the 100,000 Homes Campaign as an advisor for about six months in 2009. One of the lessons that Joe emphasized was that THE WORST planning processes involve meetings where people talk and debate for months to develop the perfect plan–and to try to imagine responses to every contingency. In the case, you can watch several interview clips with Joe. He gets a bit emotional when he argues that there is usually little difference between a plan that takes three days of talking to develop versus one that takes three months. His view is that wasting time in all those long meetings undermines the development of a strategy that is based on reality rather than conjecture by the most talkative, pushy, and powerful people in the room.

4) Beware of hollow Easter bunnies

In the early years of the campaign, Becky and her team noticed they were wasting a lot of time with communities where some enthusiastic person had signed up for the campaign. BUT despite a lot of talk and coaching from her team, nothing was actually getting done. Here’s a screenshot from the case:

This is a syndrome that Huggy Rao and I have seen again and again in organizations where there is a lot of enthusiasm from people and they love the idea behind some program or effort–but the problem is their expertise is in TALKING about it rather than DOING it. In particular, at several organizations that we have worked with, senior executives were tapped to lead design thinking efforts, they ran hundreds of people through design thinking training courses, and gave speeches at conferences and universities about their marvelous accomplishments. BUT when we pressed them to name a single product or service, or anything else, that had been changed for the better via design thinking methods, they couldn’t name one–or pointed to accomplishments that were trivial.

5) Who is the chicken f’er?

There is a juncture in the case where Becky (on film) describes her conversation with a team in a community that had found homes for only 10 people, far below their goal. They were complaining about getting little guidance from their leader and that it was unclear who was in charge. Becky was reminded of her days in the Army, and asked them a question that was a bit shocking and quite funny: “Who is the Chicken F’er?” As Becky explained, when she was in the Army, if a group of soldiers were screwing around or messing things up, an officer would ask them “who is F’ing this chicken?” In other words, who is in charge? When Becky told the leader of the group that story, she laughed and said “you are right, I am the Chicken F’er.” The leader’s staff gave her a rubber chicken to make the point. Soon, Becky was giving “The Chicken F’er” talk to one community team after another.

As the case reports, the Chicken F’er story evolved into the “top secret” Rooster Award. Each month, Becky’s team would select 10 or 15 community members who had taken it upon themselves to move the campaign forward. Each Chicken F’er received a rooster figurine to celebrate their accomplishments (see picture). Messages like this — which emphasize about accountability and clarity about who is responsible for what — are hallmarks of successful scaling efforts. Excellence spreads when people hold themselves and others accountable for doing the right things — where they act as if “I own the place and the place owns me.”

Again, these lessons just scratch the surface. I invite you to read, watch, and listen to The 100,000 Homes Campaign case to learn more about the nuances of the story and to find your favorite lessons. And I want to give special thanks to Davina Drabkin and her colleagues for creating this case and to Becky Margiotta for spending so much time with us — and for the wonderful things that she and her team accomplished during the campaign.

Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.

This column first appeared on LinkedIn.