Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What Microsoft Can Teach Us About Ending Homelessness

October 29, 2012

What can Microsoft teach us about ending family homelessness in our communities?

That’s the question I posed during my speech to 250 government representatives, non-profit leaders, managers of housing and service agencies, leaders of faith-based groups gathered at the foundation to discuss ways the Puget Sound community can decrease the number of homeless families in our community.

I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert on homelessness. I’m a business person who worked for about 27 years at Microsoft. But I think there are some lessons from the business world which can help us find effective solutions to providing secure housing for every family that needs it.

Here are the three lessons I shared today:

1. Know your customer: Whether you are selling software, cars, or bubble gum, what’s important is to know your customer. You must understand what the end user needs and the best way to meet those needs. We should think of homeless families in the same way – as customers. While all of them need access to secure housing, each family has its own unique set of circumstances that we must consider. They may need assistance not only with housing, but also counseling, job training, education, and other services. We need to customize our assistance to the individual needs of each family.

2. To solve any problem, you need data and vision: Data can determine how good a job you are doing and help you do it better. They highlight successes. They pinpoint problems. They improve your performance.  And they can help you achieve ambitious goals. At Microsoft, as we were developing Microsoft Office, we gathered as much data as possible to measure our progress and determine if we were on the right path. We did our homework and researched what other software was on the market. We sought feedback from others with experience and good judgment about how our software could be designed better. We surveyed potential customers. And we used whatever data was available to underlie a vision of customer success – because we knew that we’d never have all the data that we’d need.

This data- and vision-driven approach can also help bring us closer to ending family homelessness in our communities. By following the data and knowing our customers, we have an opportunity to make smart decisions about which strategies to pursue, make the most of our resources, and serve our clients better.

3. You only fail if you don’t learn from your mistakes: Failures and mistakes will happen. This is a normal part of any ambitious effort whether it’s selling software or ending homelessness. We are a community dedicated to ending homelessness, but that doesn’t mean we must be dedicated to just a handful of solutions. The fact is, the solutions we have today are not enough. We cannot accept the status quo anymore; we should not accept the fact that every night in our community a mother tucks her baby in bed in the back seat of her car.

We must be brave enough to make the changes that are necessary for success. We are going to try solutions that haven’t been tried before. We will certainly make mistakes along the way.  That’s not a bad thing – that means that we’re learning from what we do how to do it better.  We will experience setbacks. That’s okay -- so long as get up, dust ourselves off, and try again.

What excites me most about today’s gathering are the many dedicated partners who work with us to bring an end to family homelessness. We are learning together and moving forward, step by step. By putting clients’ needs first, following the data, and learning from our mistakes, we can speed up the progress we’ve already made and move closer to the day when no family will experience homelessness again.

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