I was recently part of a design workshop with local government and mental health services, exploring how to collaborate better around delivering effective mental health services. As a former Executive Director of a peer support charity, and a former mental health service user, I’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides of the equation. And that got me thinking about how restaurants function well.
Not everybody has had the opportunity to be a consumer of mental health services but it’s likely that everybody reading this has lived experience of dining at restaurants. In fact, many of you are probably consumer/survivors of terrible restaurant experiences that left you angry, your wallet empty, and required a painful trip to the emergency room afterwards. When it comes to restaurants, we’ve all experienced the amazing, the mediocre, and the stomach-churningly horrible. So before we get to discussing collaboration across sectors to provide mental health services — which is really what this article is about — let’s get there by looking at collaboration in restaurants:
In a restaurant, there are multiple different agents that need to collaborate. You’ve got waiters, managers, front-of-house staff, the sous chef, the head chef, the line cooks, the bartender, the dishwasher, the owner. Each service they provide relies on multiple suppliers like the grocer, the fishmonger, the butcher, the wine supplier, and so on. Each of those suppliers is subject to systems that neither they nor the restaurant controls, like fish market prices, the price of dairy, organic farming cooperatives, etc. And each of these moving pieces has their own complex regulatory environment to navigate — liquor laws, municipal health codes, import restrictions, zoning bylaws, taxes, fishery quotas, banking regulations, labour laws, etc.
Given all of that, I don’t even know why anybody bothers to open something as complex as a restaurant. But people do it, and when they do, collaboration is imperative. If all of those different stakeholders are able to come together, develop a shared understanding of what’s important to each of them, establish efficient communication systems, and empathize with the external forces putting pressure on each of them, they might begin to collaborate very effectively. But will their collaboration deliver an amazing restaurant experience? I would argue that it wouldn’t. They’re going to put one thing on the menu and it’s going to be a single, microwaved chicken finger with a side of wilted dandelion leaves cut up by the farmer’s lawnmower. They’re going to charge $60 for it, plus a 20% gratuity added to the bill automatically. You’ll have to microwave the chicken finger yourself and wash your own dishes or pay an additional $10 cleaning fee. Thank you. Please come again.
Would you be happy with that experience? Probably not. But what if the restaurant staff came out to the dining area and told you how amazingly they had collaborated together with themselves and their suppliers? Wouldn’t that just change everything?!
The staff and the suppliers can collaborate all they want but it means nothing unless they collaborate to deliver an amazing customer experience. The customer only sees the results of the collaboration. They only see the service they receive and they perceive that service as a single experience, not a collaborative effort between different agencies and suppliers. It’s what’s on the plate that matters.
If you’re at a restaurant and nothing that you want on the menu is available, how are you going to feel? If the chef serves you a rotten piece of meat and tells you it’s the butcher’s fault but that’s all they have so you’ll just have to eat it, what would you tell your friends about that restaurant? Do you have expectations of how long it should take to get served or would you be okay with being put on a nine month waiting list for appetizers? Would you be open to traveling across the border to another country to get your main course since the restaurant hasn’t purchased enough plates to serve everyone? If the waiter apologizes for the tiny portions and blames the owner for being cheap and not funding the kitchen properly, does that improve your dining experience?
The service expectations of a person seeking help for their mental health are fundamentally no different than the service expectations of a person seeking a great meal at a restaurant. Restaurants that succeed are focused on the customer experience and everything up the chain of supply is aligned around creating that amazing experience. Collaboration around a shared understanding of the customer experience is necessary. A successful restaurant will identify the experience they want to create and then each of the collaborators involved in making that experience reality derives their minute-to-minute tasks from that shared understanding of how to make the customer experience a reality. The success and sustainability of the restaurant depends on that. Restaurants that fail to deliver that, fail.
Collaborating around the customer experience of accessing mental health services can create powerful and necessary changes in what, how, where, and when mental health services are delivered. Just as a restaurant won’t put a dish on the menu that takes 90 minutes to prepare because that’s going to conflict with the customer’s expectations of a great experience, so too do we need to look for new ways to effectively deliver mental health supports that reflect the context of our agencies AND the context in which our customers live.
It might seem daunting to develop a shared vision of the ideal customer experience with all of your colleagues and service collaborators. But restaurants struggle with the exact same issue — what’s more finicky than personal taste? Compare your favourite Chinese restaurant with your favourite Italian restaurant and your favourite pub. What do they have in common? What’s underneath the superficial differences that make it a great experience? How do you measure the value of the service you receive?
Understanding how we can collaborate around customer needs and goals to improve the impact of mental health service delivery isn’t an impossible task. It’s an amazingly valuable task. Start with an understanding of what it will take to get your customers leaving your agency with a smile on their faces, and design your collaboration backwards from there.