How to Lead & Grow Better Teams. A Team Canvas Exercise

May 2022
Mins read

The canvas has been designed to assist leaders and teams in organizations in challenging the current state and imagine a better future state for how they work. Use the exercises to adopt new team norms, introduce practices and rituals for how they can work more effectively.

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How to effectively lead teams? 

Leif Babin and Jocko Willnett former Navy Seals, now New York Times best-selling authors, observed how the behavior of leaders directly determines if a team performs well or not. This insight is highlighted in a Business Insider video below.

During an exercise, SEAL candidates were grouped by height into boat crews. The most senior-ranking sailor became the boat crew leader responsible for receiving, transmitting, and overseeing the execution of the lead instructor’s orders. They were to go through a gruelling string of races that involved running with the boat and then paddling it in the ocean.

After several rounds, one team consistently came in first, followed by the other. The instructors decided to switch the leaders of the best and worst teams, and the results were remarkable. Under new leadership, the formerly great team did relatively well but was a shadow of its past self, and the formerly terrible team placed first.

Share your screw-ups if you want to lead effective teams 

You don't have to use 'advanced search' to uncover what makes a team more effective. Google did a little project of their own, and it was code-named Aristotle. They studied over 180 separate teams for two years and they identified psychological safety is by far the most crucial element to create high performing teams. What this means is people will freely share their work and ideas, admit when they stuff up, regularly give and receive feedback, take part in tough conversations, but they’ll only do this when they feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

Being openly vulnerable at work sounds counterintuitive to everything we have been taught. The truth is we’re not great at talking about being vulnerable. Communicating doubts, fears, or failures at work is uncomfortable. It is not part of our professional world's cultural or social norms. From our first introduction to the workplace, we are groomed not to share our shortcomings or hesitations. We are expected to have solutions to problems at all times. The belief is that vulnerability is a sign of weakness, and it’s better to hide it. 

When we talk about vulnerability, it doesn’t mean oversharing every problem or thought that comes into our heads or burdening others. Talking about tough moments is a lot like salt - too much of it spoils everything. Sharing your deficiencies should come from a place of selflessness, and authenticity, and where you think it adds value and meaning to others.

The typical behavior for most leaders and work culture is to only present the best version of yourself, to be robust, sure of your decisions and rarely speak of mistakes. The thinking has always been that there is no place for vulnerability at work.  At least until now. It turns out that sharing your faults can be a force for good by drawing teams and people together. The vulnerability loop was discovered by Jeff Polzer, a Harvard professor of organizational behavior. 

What are vulnerability loops?

They are simple interactions between people. They open the doors to cooperation and trust. These loops send the signal that say, “I’m trying but I’m struggling, and you are part of my team, and I need you”. In their purest form, they are subtle, authentic interactions, and they often follow these steps:

Jo communicates a message of vulnerability.
Amy sees the sign and responds by showing that she is vulnerable or has empathy, which could look like a nod or a smile.
Jo picks up on this signal.
With this one act, it sets the pattern where trust and rapport can grow.

They can take the form of one-on-one conversations, ‘Hey I’m stuck, and I don’t think I can solve this one alone.' To conversations that address a team or company, like this example from the now CEO of Uber when he left Expedia in his parting memo, which Vox posted. This type of memo to staff comes from someone who seems untouchable and bulletproof. He establishes from the top a model of behavior in which it is acceptable to be authentic, to be uncertain, but to always be courageous.

“I have to tell you I am scared. I've been here at Expedia for so long that I've forgotten what life is like outside this place. However, the times of greatest learning for me have been when I've been through big changes, or taken on new roles--you have to move out of your comfort zone and develop muscles that you didn't know you had”.

On a larger scale, you can use a ‘break room’ as Dun and Bradstreet did to bare their soul. People were encouraged to write down their biggest mistakes and share them openly. It’s note-worthy that the Vice Chairman started with himself first.

If you set the right environment, teams can have honest conversations, speak truths, be frank about their mistakes or their shortcomings. That breeds a safe place for trust to thrive.  Without vulnerability, there is no trust. 

While vulnerability and trust are a big deal, you’ll also want to design these elements into your team playbook as well. 

Dependability  -  people in the team can rely on others to follow through and get work done or pitch in to find a solution to a problem.

Structure and Clarity -  Everyone's role is clear; team and individuals expectations are spelled out.

Meaning - Recognition and positive feedback is the fuel that gets teams through those tough days at work. Alternatively, lending a hand when someone is struggling.

Impact - "Hey, Your work matters" - Teams reflect and are aware of how they contribute to achieving organizational goals and improving the lives of customers and the broader community.

How do you lead teams?

What are the steps? What does your team want? How can you turn a kaleidoscopic group of people with diverse views, experiences, cultures, strengths, gaps, and wishes into a high functioning and successful team? What's the best way to support a brand-new team or reshape trust within an existing team? Can you help your team members explore more meaning in their work? What are objectives both individually and as a team?

Consider how inclusion and the alternative workforce will affect your team

You can probably envision a better future state for your team, but there are other forces at play and it's worth considering them upfront before we dive into the design exercise.

The first is diversity and inclusion. It's indisputable that globalization and technology are fuelling diversity in the modern workplace. As a leader, it's likely you are working on diversity and inclusion initiatives across your organization. Evidence by the World Economic Forum suggests it leads to innovation, better decision making, and helps you to outperform your competition.

How do diversity and inclusion programs inoculate your teams against conformity and groupthink?

Groupthink amongst teams on a day to day basis looks harmless and trivial. One example might be when a team member self-censors during a meeting. The team member doesn't bother to share their idea because it's rarely welcomed or valued. When they do get to share an alternative view with their team, they are viewed by others as difficult. Instead, they choose to remain quiet and go with the flow, rather than speak up. Daily occurrences of groupthink look innocuous enough. However, the accumulative effect throughout an organization means on its worst day groupthink has the power to destroy entire brands and companies. Consider the Volkswagen emissions scandal, the collapse of Lehman Brothers or the demise of Kodak.

  • Diversity and inclusion bring a different set of challenges, such as accommodating differences in work styles,
  • Diverging attitudes around work,
  • Group versus independent problem-solving approaches.

Ideally, you'll factor these elements in when you begin the design exercise, and as you do this it’s worth remembering this quote from Vijay Eswaran as written for the World Economic Forum.

Empathetic leadership is key to this transformation.

New norms - The alternative workforce

Talent on tap is the model many organizations will have to leverage out of necessity to achieve strategies for growth. In simple terms, there isn't enough skilled talent to go around. Organizations will use freelancers, contractors, remote staff, temporary project-based workers not just for filling demand, but increasingly for strategic and long term roles.

The work skills of more than half of us are rapidly reaching a best before date. As noted by the World Economic Forum, at least 54% of all employees will need re-skilling and up-skilling by 2022. That's of course if you want to ride the wave of the 4th Industrial Revolution.  

Think about the following statistic for a moment;

By 2029, freelance workers will represent more than 50% of the US working population.

Speedup of the multifaceted workforce together with the rise of the flexible employee adds another layer of complexity for the way you lead and guide teams. If you fail to consider these two influences, it may muddy the waters even more for team members.

Increasingly, teams will be a mix of full time and freelance talent. With ever-changing initiatives, you'll assemble, disassemble, and reassemble these teams. When you bring people together for new projects or purposes you'll want to acclimatize and stabilize them quickly so together, they can produce outputs and solve problems faster.

Assemble a seemingly random group of people and turn them into a team

To design a high trust team culture, you'll need to take an active role in working with a group. How do you get things off to a good start, ensure everyone in your team participates and is given equal turns in contributing? It's called "equality in the distribution of conversational turn-taking." It's a Harvard thing. It consistently shows up in teams that work well together.

What it means is that everyone in the group or team gets the same proportion of time to talk. If only a few individuals dominated the conversation, then the combined intelligence of the team declines.

During the facilitation of the canvas, it's best to get people to write their answers on sticky notes so that everyone body can take a turn.

Intention of the Canvas

The canvas has been designed to assist leaders and teams in organizations in challenging the current state and imagine a better future state for how they work. Use the exercises to adopt new team norms, introduce practices and rituals for how they can work more effectively. We hope it helps all team members begin conversations, gain clarity and produce results.

The Canvas is designed to work through with your team

By working through each of the five elements, you'll collectively map the purpose, objectives, metrics, values, behavioral standards, influence, inclusion, rituals, and symbols that help teams function.

You can use this for new teams or teams that may be struggling and could do with some improvement. Use it to guide better choices, solve conflicts, lift, or add more meaning to the workday.

If the lifespan of the team is brief, then you can select which aspects will bring the most value and clarity to your team.

The design exercise is for every team member to participate actively with help from a facilitator. The canvas helps everyone map out their desired future state and goals. It makes it visible for everyone and transforms abstract team concepts into visible concrete ones.  The outputs of the canvas are the guide rails that will help prevent team members falling off the edge when there are conflicts, decisions, or problems. It's designed to help you foster team performance.

"Design creates culture. Culture shapes values. Values determine the future." - Robert L. Peters, designer and author.

Designing a team is an iterative process, and together with your team, you'll want to prototype behaviors and rituals that reflect your team's values and objectives. Together you can examine if it's working for you, collect feedback, and fine-tune as you go.

You’ll need all the standard items for this exercise; laptop, data projector, whiteboard, Sticky notes and markers.


Start by showing the team canvas and explain that together you’ll be using it as a tool to help you understand each other better. It will help you as a team navigate the ups and downs, provide some early warning signals so the team can adjust, understand and agree on purpose, goals, measures, and values. Decide what behaviors and rituals to support your goals and values.

Walkthrough the cards in the canvas with your team and ask the questions that resonate the most and ask that everyone participate. Urge team members to write their answers on sticky notes and attach the card on the canvas and discuss it with the team. As the facilitator, you will have to gain consensus amongst your team.

Card 1: Team Purpose

The first step is to work through the team's purpose. Sharing a sense of purpose helps connect and propel people forward. It would help if you always mapped your team purpose to align with your organizational mission and values.

Ask people to write their answers on sticky notes and share. Look for commonalities and contrasts. Attempt to keep the team purpose statement to just one sentence.

Start by describing:

  • what you do
  • whom you do it for
  • and why you do it

Or use this sentence to complete your purpose.

We build ___ to serve ___ and achieve ___

One example of a purpose statement for a team working in Healthcare:

Together we strive to help our organization achieve better health outcomes and deliver continuous patent care in New York State.

Alternatively, for a customer experience team, an example purpose is:

The mission of the Customer Experience Team is to deliver superior services, at every moment, every day, at every customer interaction.


What do we stand for?

Why are we doing this as a team?

What do we want in the future as a team?

Where is our team headed?

Impact Questions:

This exercise can help teams achieve a sense of meaning from their work, understand who they serve, who benefits from the team's output, and what impacts their choices have on others. It assists team members to comprehend and connect the importance of their work in the broader framework.

Draw three concentric circles. The team should be placed in the middle circle. In the next circle, map the people or groups who are affected by the group's work. It may include people, other teams, customers, suppliers, partners. Alternatively, it may consist of things, for example, safety on the roads, better urban spaces. In the outer circle, you can think of the impact the team has on the broader community or the world and map those elements.


Who is affected by our work?

Whom do we serve?

Who benefits from our work?

Card 2: Team Values

When mapping your team values, they should align with your organizational values and mission. Team values include things like, what you value as a team, your team norms, when and how you work best. (e.g., work late and come in later tomorrow, critical feedback - we try to do this in person)

When mapping your team values, try to ask participants to capture it in a single word.

At the end of the session, use dot voting, and have all participants vote for the values that represent the ideal future state of the team. Continue this until you have narrowed it down to no more than 4 or 6.


What do we value here?

What values will help us to achieve our purpose?

What is a must? What don't we compromise?

Why is this important?

Do we live by these values now?

What do we want as a team?

What do those values look like daily?

What do they look like if there is a problem?

What do they look like when we are working with remote team members or new team members.

Decide on your values.

Card 3: Goals

You’re probably thinking everyone should know this, but are goals obvious? For something to stick, it needs to be seen, stated, and restated. If you do this exercise and feedback from the team results in different goals, it should raise red flags. If this happens as a team, you'll need to re-establish what your shared goals are and how they can be measured.

If your team works on projects, you could list the shared goals on how you want to work on the project and how to measure project success as a team. Have everyone write down team goals on sticky notes. Share them and stick them to the canvas. Sort them into themes and have every team member cast a dot vote for the goals that best align with the purpose of the team that are specific, measurable, and realistic. Then further filter by dot voting again if necessary.


What are the goals of our team?

What are we expected to do as a team?

What outputs are we expected to achieve as a team?

You can also map individual goals and see how they align with the teams.

Individual team question:

What are your individual goals working in this team?

Card 4: Measuring Goals

To achieve consistent results as a team, you'll need clarity and commitment on how to measure the success of each of the goals. As the saying goes, “What gets measured, gets done.” Have team members write answers on sticky notes. List the goals from the previous card, and under each goal, write the measures of success.


How will we measure success as a team? (e.g., time, customer satisfaction scores, meeting targets, troubleshooting problems, communication, collaboration, efficiency, innovation, less conflict)

How can we share results early and often as a team?

What are the elements we need in our team so we can achieve results?

How do we hold each other accountable? What does it look like for our team?

How can we observe, track, and use the measures?

Card 5: Team Behaviour

In this step, we want to map what behaviors exist in our team. Expose what practices we value most as a team. Attempt to understand which behaviors the team wants to start or stop. Here you'll help the team to consider if the behaviors in the team are supporting them in reaching their goals and values. Or if certain behaviors are undesirable and incompatible with the values and objectives of the group or the organization.

Collectively you'll want to map the daily, weekly, and monthly behaviors you value as a team. It may include a listing of what acceptable behaviors look and sound like. You'll want to give specific examples. Choose the questions that resonate with team members. Have them write their answers on sticky notes. Stick the notes on the canvas. Sort them into themes and have every team member cast a dot vote for the behaviors that best align with the purpose, goals, and values. Then further filter by dot voting again if necessary.

As a side note: According to researcher Brene Brown, the behaviors people need from their group principally include listening, curiosity, honesty, and keeping confidence. The behaviors that cripple psychological safety in teams and groups include unrequested advice-giving, fault finding, interruptions, and breaking trust by sharing things that we say in confidence in the team meeting.

  • First, map the current team behaviors.
  • Second, map the behaviors you want to start.
  • Third, map the behaviors you want to stop.

It may help to think about these in connection to a scenario that happens during a workday. Examples include; when the team misses deadlines, when the client is unsatisfied, during decision making or when we need to have a tough conversation.


What behaviors in our team do we value?

What don't we value? (e.g., Frustration, Hidden agendas, Micromanagement, Surprises)

What are the behaviors that support our goals?

What do straight talk and hard conversations look like to us?

How do we make decisions now, and what are the behaviors?

What happens if we make mistakes?

What do team behaviors look like on a good day?

What do they look like on a bad day?

What are the behaviours if we are stuck?

What behaviors suck?

What is something I would like people in the team to STOP doing?

What would I like them to CONTINUE doing?

What negative consequences we will see if we don't change it?

Inclusive questions include:

How do we welcome new people into the team?

What was your first day with the team like? Why and what would you change?

How can we be more inclusive? What do those behaviors look like?

We need to respect and embrace differences, but we also need to look at what we all have in common.

How can we support the development of each other?

What would you like to see more of from team members?

If you want to dig deeper into your culture, do the following exercise.

Imagine you are new in the team.

Now ask these questions of a team member.

So, what should I do to get ahead here?

What shouldn't I do?

What makes people successful here?

What made you successful?

In this Medium article, Charles O’Reilly of Stanford GSB employed the above type of questioning and uncovered what culture is versus not what you think it is. The real culture of an organization manifests itself through the behaviors of team members. In the post, it mentioned that some of the less favorable responses from participants were, "be available on email 24x7!", "sound smart" and "get consensus on your decisions." The goals and values of the organization, such as innovation and being customer-oriented, did not exhibit themselves as behaviors.

Charles O’Reilly said,

"That's your culture.

Your culture is the behaviors you reward and punish."

So, you need to ask yourselves what team behaviors do you want to reward and punish? It's best if teams choose only a few new actions to change, review the progress together and adapt or modify as necessary. Once you've decided together on the behaviors that work best for the team, you can start to hold people accountable for these during feedback sessions, conversations, and check-ins.

Card 6: Rituals

What are work rituals? They are practices or acts that a team or group of people can regularly follow and they use a consistent pattern. Rituals are acts that provide meaning outside the day to day and help bond teams together?

Rituals help support responsibility, better conversations, inclusion trust, and ultimately, they are designed to support the behaviors you want to see from each other. Rituals can be weekly, monthly, and yearly.

They can be small acts, for example, when team members have a stand-up meeting, and they share one thing they did well last week and one thing they didn't do so well. It can be personal or work-related.

Other rituals can be more significant, like onboarding rituals for new team members. An example includes a Buddy system - where a new hire has three buddies for the week. One for coffee in the morning to check in how they are settling in. One for helping them to understand tasks and one to introduce them to others during lunch.

Other rituals might cover:

  • onboarding,
  • celebrations,
  • feedback, good or bad.

Rituals help team members to model new norms.

In her bestselling book Dare to Lead, Brene Brown talks about the need to get good at difficult conversations. Rituals can help us do this. In her research and consulting, she uses a framework for how teams can use rituals for Hard Conversations. It's an exercise called Permission slips and Container Building and can be especially useful for meetings.  Everyone in the group writes on a sticky note a permission slip. It gives that team member permission to say or do something without judgment. It's like a ‘show all your cards’ exercise. The other activity is the container ritual, which is helpful for team meetings or briefings. It gets peoples ‘needs’ out on the table, minus the emotion. Questions include: What do you need to show up and do the work?

  • What will get in the way of you showing up and doing the work?
  • What does support look like to me?

Use this tool to design rituals for your employees.

The best way to brainstorm rituals is to think about triggers or events along a team journey like onboarding, celebrations, conflict, end of the project, or inclusion. Brainstorm with your teammates what a ritual might look like that supports your goals and values. It may include symbols like food or drink, or an object like a box where problems you solved go to die. Alternatively, a wall of fame where stuff-ups are written and posted. There are also recognition rituals which are generally driven from the top down. You can also include these as grassroots recognition rituals for teammates.


What rituals do we have now?

What rituals would we like to try?

How often do we want to include rituals?

How do we reward and recognize team members?

Can we include recognition rituals for good work?

Brainstorm a ritual with a group of three. Share your answers and decide together the merit of it.

Card 7: Signals

Signals help to remind team members why they are there and what they are aiming to achieve. They reinforce behaviors and help everyone stay connected even during times of pressure. They can be behavioral like a channel in Slack, which list your goals and values and celebrates the team members who lived them through their actions and choices (at CentricMinds we have a #praise channel). Alternatively, they can be physical cues - naming your team meetings, giving your team workspace a name on the wall based on team values. They can be digital. For example, voting the best news story of the week - promoting a Growth Mindset, or providing team members with a chance to focus - no ‘email Thursdays’.

Brainstorm ideas around these questions.


What symbols will help remind us of our purpose?

What physical symbols can we use?

What digital symbols can we use?

What behavioral symbols can we use?