Published in


How To Map Risk With A Mission Model Canvas

Why design thinking is crucial for mission based organizations.

I’m often asked what types of tools and techniques help reduce risk in non-profits, governments and mission based organizations. With a few exceptions, the majority of content available online and in books applies to profit based businesses. Mission driven leaders try to adapt these profit based recommendations to their work and quickly become frustrated.

This guide is a high level overview of the tools I’ve used and adapted to help non-profits, governments and mission based teams visualize their strategy and reduce risk.

Visualize Your Strategy with a Mission Model Canvas

I first stumbled upon the Mission Model Canvas by reading Steve Blank’s article in 2016. It’s a lesser known variant of the Business Model Canvas created by Alex Osterwalder. It was created to help the Hacking for Defense class at Stanford. I’ve used it with teams at many organizations, most notably being the IMF in Washington, DC.

Mission Model Canvas

I won’t go into great detail about the customizations of the canvas, besides they’ve already created a great series of videos you can watch for free here.

At first glance, you can clearly see in red that it’s been modified to support mission driven organizations:

  • Customer Segment replaced with Beneficiaries
  • Customer Relationships replaced with Buy-in & Support
  • Channels replaced with Deployment
  • Revenue Streams replaced with Mission Achievement/Impact Factors
  • Cost Structure replaced with Mission Budget/Cost

This tool has been available since 2016 and works really well, but I wanted to explain how I’ve extended it with teams, much like I’ve done with the Business Model Canvas in the book Testing Business Ideas.

Apply Design Thinking to a Mission Model Canvas

Once you’ve visualized your strategy in a Mission Model Canvas, it can be difficult to identify your risk and where to start. I’ve found that much like we’ve done with the Business Model Canvas, you can layer in design thinking to help focus your team.

Source IDEO and Larry Keeley, Doblin Group

These principles of design thinking help orient your team to drive to action by asking the questions:

  • Desirability = Do They?
  • Viability = Should We?
  • Feasibility = Can We?

When you layer this thinking on top of your Mission Model Canvas, you can begin to see what types of risk you have in your strategy.

Desirability Risk

Even for mission driven organizations, much of your risk resides within the “do they” question of desirability. This includes your value proposition to your beneficiaries, whether or not you can get buy-in & support and being able to access them at all.

I categorize these 4 sections as desirability risk:

  • Value Propositions
  • Buy-in & Support
  • Deployment
  • Beneficiaries
Desirability Risk in a Mission Model Canvas

Viability Risk

Your mission driven organization still needs to be sustainable. Whether that’s proving impact to raise more funding or balancing out your costs. In profit based businesses we talk a lot about financial viability but in mission driven organizations, you still have to answer the “should we” question.

Your viability risk resides mostly within the ability to achieve meaningful impact within the allocated budget.

I categorize these 2 sections as viability risk:

  • Mission Budget/Cost
  • Mission Achievement/Impact Factors
Viability Risk in a Mission Model Canvas

Feasibility Risk

The “can we” question is especially important for your mission driven organization. Many teams focus too much on technical feasibility, but in reality it extends beyond technical challenges to regulatory hurdles.

What happens when your tech works but regulations, policy or government won’t allow you to implement the solution? I think this is a major reframing of feasibility that needs to occur in our industry.

Just because you can build it, doesn’t mean you are allowed to implement it.

I categorize these 3 sections as feasibility risk:

  • Key Partners
  • Key Activities
  • Key Resources
Feasibility Risk in a Mission Model Canvas

Combining All Three

There’s a reason all 3 of these circles overlap when we draw it, because they heavily influence one another.

Your ability to deliver the value proposition successfully often relies on whether or not you have the right activities and resources. Your impact factors depend on whether or not you have enough budget, which is also related to your activities and resources.

Once you have all three themes layered in, I find that it helps see the relationships and risk between each section.

Desirability / Viability / Feasibility with a Mission Model Canvas

Extracting and Mapping Risk

Once you’ve created your Mission Model Canvas, then I recommend to write down your assumptions around each theme.

I like the “We believe…” format for writing these down.

I use colors to help visualize each theme and designate:

  • Orange stickies for Desirability
  • Green stickies for Viability
  • Blue stickies for Feasibility

Then once they are written down, we map them with a 2x2 exercise I call Assumptions Mapping. It helps the team to focus on what is most important for success, and yet has the least amount of supporting evidence.

Mission Model Canvas with Assumptions Mapping

Observe, Orient, Decide and Act

Once you’ve created a Mission Model Canvas and mapped out your assumptions, now the real work begins. Your team will need to select assumptions from the top right quadrant and go rapidly validate them.

To put it in other terms for those of you familiar with the OODA Loop, you’ve only made it from Observe and Orient to Decide.

Now you have to Act.

Running experiments that match your risk

You’ll need to tap into the creativity of your team to design experiments that rapidly generate evidence for each assumption. Then based on what you’ve learned from testing, continue to update your strategy.

It’s a lot of hard work, but I use this method because you can visualize what’s in your head, focus your team and create a shared language within your organization.

I’m sharing this adaptation with all of you because now, more than ever, we need to rethink our approach to visualizing and rapidly testing our mission based strategies.

If you need help in matching experiments to assumptions, feel free to contact me I will try to be of assistance. Stay safe everyone.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store