What is an Action Camp?

By Jake Maguire, June 21, 2015 - 8:35pm

The most versatile solution may not be to teach communities to solve a single problem, but to coach them to be problem solvers. What communities need most, in our experience, is a reliable skill set for identifying, testing and evaluating new social change ideas in the service of learning and constant improvement.

We’ve all heard the ubiquitous Fish Proverb: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The message, of course, is that it’s more useful in the long term to teach someone how to do something for themselves then to do it for them.

Maybe, but it’s also true that people have a lot of capacity to begin with. The most versatile solution may not be to teach someone to solve a single problem, but to coach them to be a problem solver. What people - and in our experience, communities - need most is a reliable skill set for identifying, testing and evaluating new social change ideas in the service of learning and quality improvement.

That’s the thinking behind the new Action Camps that we're rolling out across the country in communities participating in our Zero: 2016 initiative to end chronic and veteran homelessness.

Each Action Camp is a two-day quality improvement workshop where communities confront the biggest barriers standing in the way of ending chronic and veteran homelessness. The goal of the events is not only to help communities find homes for more people, but also to equip them with new problem solving tools so that they can test and refine new strategies well into the future. We have learned and refined the core lessons of each Action Camp in partnership with groups like the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, IDEO and the Rapid Results Institute.

At each Action Camp, communities learn to use three tools in particular:


1. Driver Diagrams

Driver diagrams are roadmaps that help teams organize their best ideas for testing. First, we ask communities to develop an overarching aim by identifying the precise number of veterans and chronically homeless people they will need to house to end chronic and veteran homelessness on schedule. Communities then break that aim into three or four sub-goals - often called “drivers.” Taken together, these drivers should amount to success on the primary aim. Finally, communities brainstorm and organize strategy ideas for accomplishing each driver.

Driver diagrams force communities to prioritize their highest impact ideas and justify those ideas by demonstrating visually how they lead to big picture success. They are visual hypotheses about what it will take to solve a problem, and they are easy to change as new information becomes available.


2. PDSA Cycles

Once communities have built clear driver diagrams, they are ready to test new strategies. A PDSA cycle - short for plan, do, study, act - is a simple way to experiment on a small scale while achieving rapid learning. It is a common tool used in manufacturing, healthcare, and other quality improvement settings. (Photo: Zero: 2016 communities learn to use this tool through a friendly paper airplane competition.)

Communities kick off each 30-day PDSA cycle by brainstorming high-impact strategies against their key drivers and choosing the best ones for testing. Some communities have chosen to pilot new landlord outreach efforts, for example. Others have developed new ways to use flexible federal housing subsidies like ESG or SSVF. These ideas are based on the biggest self-identified needs of each community.

As they implement each new idea, communities gather performance data to determine the resulting impact on housing placements. After a month of data, they review their ideas to assess what worked, what failed, and what needs refinement before making improvements and repeating the cycle.

PDSA cycles are an ideal complement to traditional, longer term evaluation methods. Where traditional methods may identify a clear best practice, like housing first or the most reliable street assessment tool, PDSA cycles offer communities a rigorous but flexible way to implement and improve such practices in real time. They also give communities a method for testing and evaluating entirely new ideas quickly. For Zero: 2016 communities, PDSA cycles are designed to last about a month - the interval on which each community tracks the number of people it is moving into housing at any given time.


3. Data Confidence Pillars

The third component of each Action Camp is the introduction of Zero: 2016’s data confidence pillars. These pillars are a simple way of measuring a community’s confidence in its local data and the way that data is used. One pillar asks each community to score its confidence in its local by-name list of people experiencing homelessness, for example. (Is it comprehensive? Are all local agencies adding to the list correctly?) Another pillar asks each community to score its confidence in its monthly housing placement data. (Is the community capturing everyone housed? How well integrated are various local data systems?)

The confidence framework gives communities an actionable metric for improving the quality of their data. Participants are encouraged to ask, “What could we do to improve our confidence in each data point, and how could we test and measure those ideas?”

The important thing about the tools that communities gain during an Action Camp is that they are reusable. Driver diagrams, PDSA cycles and data confidence pillars can help communities implement specific housing approaches more effectively, but they can also help teams solve additional problems that may be unique to families, youth or other types of homelessness.

The fundamental goal of each Action Camp is to help communities end chronic and veteran homelessness while also building a reusable quality improvement infrastructure for change.


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