Some problems are best tackled with a counter-intuitive approach.
Great innovators often experience an “a-ha” moment--a moment when they finally stumble upon a solution to a problem. For Rosanne Haggerty, an international pioneer in the fight against homelessness, that “a-ha” moment happened backwards.
“I suddenly realized,” Haggerty said, “that the solution itself was the problem.”
Haggerty, the president of not-for-profit Community Solutions, has spent more than 20 years developing permanent supportive housing and advising communities across the globe. While most outreach programs address homelessness by treating the symptoms, Rosanne went straight to the source of the problem. She focused on creating a program that would get homeless people permanently off the street, which required a different approach than temporary relief. Currently, 154 U.S. communities are involved in the Community Solutions campaign to end homelessness.
When the solution becomes the problem, entrepreneurs can take a methodical approach to deconstructing the current system - and rebuilding it.
1. Ask the right questions
First up: Bust the myths. Often, that requires asking new questions, or asking the same questions in a different way.
In New York’s Times Square, several homeless people had been labeled “service resistant” because they consistently refused help when volunteers offered to drive them to a shelter. As it turns out, those people were open to assistance - many were simply fearful of staying in a shelter. “They wanted and needed help. We were just asking the wrong questions,” Haggerty said.
2. Know names
You need to know your problem intimately. That’s hard to do from a conference room. People who are in need “tend to have a clear idea of what could improve their lives, even when faced with very complex problems,” Haggerty said. “So get to know them, and ask them your questions.”
3. Do the math
Names are important, but so are numbers. Data can help you understand what’s wrong with the current system and how to fix it. With Common Ground, Haggerty’s team of volunteers canvased the streets between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., surveying homeless people. More than 80% of the people they approached were willing to talk with the volunteers, providing information that helped reframe the big-picture issue.
4. Find the pressure points
Hard data can identify the area of greatest trouble - and that should be the starting line.
“Solving the problem at its worst will result in a system that’s better for everyone, not just the outliers,” Haggerty said. If social entrepreneurs can determine how to move the needle in the most acute situations, that methodology then can be applied to less dire cases.
Complicated problems don’t get solved by one person. Find partners - nonprofits, private companies, local government - and identify mutual incentives.
6. Eliminate the bottlenecks
Does the current model include hoops that are difficult to jump through? Haggerty says that, in order to qualify for housing, homeless people were typically required to produce documentation such as birth certificates and social security cards, which they often didn’t have access to. If the requirements are impeding the process, change them.
7. Make it sustainable
Ultimately, Community Solutions has found success because it approaches homelessness from a different angle. Community Solutions looks to change the system rather than to come up with a general response.
“Social entrepreneurs shouldn’t be constrained by the institutions that are currently in place,” Haggerty said. “Sometimes, to fix the problem, you have to fix the solutions first.”
BENJAMIN WALD is a successful technology entrepreneur and investor. Ben’s passion for social impact, software and education support his ambition to change the world through technology. He is now the Managing Partner of Spartan Systems.