The Mental Health Strategy Canvas

My day job is to co-design mental health initiatives across two very unique organizations. When I explain this to others, I am often met with puzzled looks and quiet pause.

Then comes the follow up: “What does that mean?“…”What is a mental health strategy?“…”Can you give me some examples?”…

These are good questions.

When you’re working at the systems level in the way that I am, things can get pretty messy, complex and confusing. My mandate involves influencing and shaping the redesign of organizational policy and procedure; curriculum and pedagogy; services and programs; and training, education and awareness, all in the name of mental health promotion. Defining what “mental health” means through a holistic lens (e.g., not just illness focused) offers an added layer of ambiguity. What does mental health promotion mean in concrete/action focused terms? How does this connect with all the pieces of the strategy?

I have sketched out the diverse stakeholders and variables of the strategy into a number of visual configurations and maps. I have found this helpful in discovering new insights around relationships and influencers in this space. These maps, however, are difficult to condense down into a clear one-page document that can be used as a sharable communications tool. After all, I need to find a way to convey this information to others so that it is easy to understand but doesn’t undermine the depth and complexity of the work.

In order to make sense of all the layers of “the strategy” (stakeholders, groups, services, programs, policies, processes, politics, etc.) and contextualize it within its broader goals, ambitions, and value proposition, I found it incredibly helpful to create a strategy ‘canvas’. The canvas is something that I borrow from my days working more heavily in startups. I had met with some of the folks involved with Business Model Generation, a book written by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. Business Model Generation helps entrepreneurs develop a business model using a canvas, a strategic management tool that identifies and stitches together the elements of a business model into a unifying framework.

I see great utility in the canvas in helping make sense of a complex mental health strategy. It’s a birds eye view of something that has a lot of interrelated, moving parts. The canvas I have shared above is just an example, using general departments/programs/services that one would normally find in a postsecondary institution. The part I admittedly struggle to clearly articulate (without writing reams of text) is the value proposition. However, I modified a nice phrase that I am borrowing from one of the Managers I work with that I felt summed up at least one part of the value proposition quite nicely — at the end of the day, we wish to foster “healthy & happy graduates”.

I also wanted to add one final note about the canvas that I think is particularly helpful for non-profits and postsecondary institutions to consider: A business mentality. Based on my own experience in startups, here’s why:

  • Coordinated, campus-wide strategy work in postsecondary mental health is a relatively “new” concept. Because the intention behind this work is to (re)design initiatives that positively impact mental health, it helps to think like a business — how do we create new initiatives that are self-sustaining (and perhaps not reliant on institutional/government funding), nimble and testable within the organizational environment, actually responsive to the needs of users, and demonstrate meaningful impact that can be documented and shared? What initially attracted me to this space was the fact that, with a little creativity, my work could be treated like an internal startup of sorts.
  • lean startup mentality lends itself well to the postsecondary space given the resource constraints we face, day-to-day. We only have so many resources to work with and it’s important to experiment with initiatives, where possible, in order to test out the viability of new ideas so we can identify early successes and fail faster. All too often, I see under/un-tested ideas go through vast amounts of vetting, development and perfection before it ever reaches its intended user audience. I don’t think this is the best use of energy or time.
  • A value proposition is about conveying a company’s core offering/value add, and the reason why users should choose it over its competitors. In institutions, we tend not to frame our offerings this way, despite having strong leanings towards “customer service” language and philosophy. What I appreciate about the value proposition is that it needs to be communicated in plain language and makes sense to a layperson. At the same time, what I struggle the most about the value proposition is that it can be incredibly difficult to articulate…this is particularly true in mental health strategy, where the goals can be large, systemic and frankly, rather ambiguous (e.g., stigma reduction, healthier communities, etc.).

Have you seen other uses of the business model generation canvas and do you think it applies to organizations/strategy in the way I have suggested here?