How to create your Team Onion

The Team Onion is a collaborative tool with co-created and co-owned outputs. The model’s power is in the conversations around it, designed to uncover assumptions, make decisions and identify actions requiring real-time, synchronous discussions.

Creating your Team Onion

Create your Team Onion in a workshop setting, either face to face on a wall with sticky notes or over video using an online whiteboard like Miro.

The five steps to creating your Team Onion are:

  1. Get the right people together
  2. Map out your onion rings
  3. Prioritise your engagement
  4. Engage your wider team
  5. Review and iterate
Two people in discussion with sticky notes on a wall behind them

1. Get the right people together

Who the right people are, depends on the stage of your team. 

If you are at an early stage and using the Team Onion to create a new team, then involve people that know the capabilities needed and the people potentially involved.

In a team kick-off, invite the team’s core members and anyone who can help have the right conversations to build your Team Onion.

If you are an existing team, invite the core team and any collaborators with whom you work to help foster empathy and understanding.

Make sure everyone understands the model before starting the workshop exercise; these tools can help.

2. Map out your Onion Rings

Each of the onion rings represents a different type of team member; each has different attributes of purpose, time commitment, collaboration, communication and feedback frequency, covered in the table below.

Each ring also has a guide size against it, loosely based on Dunbar’s Number; this helps keep teams as small as possible and reduce cognitive load.

Start with the Core and go through each ring. Add as many people as you want; then, you can discuss and reduce the numbers through conversation before agreeing and moving to the next ring.

An illustration of the model as three rings in a circle, with core in the middle in yellow, collaborators in the middle ring in blue and supporters on the outside in green.

Capabilities, Commitment, Collaboration and Communication.

When thinking about who to put in the rings, consider the capabilities (knowledge, skills and experience) needed for the team rather than job titles. Once you have agreed on the list of people and what they bring to the team, you can agree on the time commitment and effective collaboration and communication patterns for each member.

Core

At the centre of the onion is the core team; this is the multidisciplinary team with the capability needed to achieve their goal. They need high levels of trust, collaboration and communication and enable this by working together every day.

Collaborators

The collaborators are vital to a team’s success. They bring in specialist capabilities, ongoing assurance, reduce dependencies or blockers, and need regular communication and collaboration with the core team to build trust, empathy and feedback loops. They will need to understand how the team works and what it is trying to achieve. 

Aim to have named individuals in this ring rather than teams so that you can build good relationships.

Remember that how the core team engages with each collaborator or group of collaborators may differ. 

Collaborators will likely be working on more than one team and have other work commitments; this is a benefit as this helps create a network across the organisation.

Supporters

Supporters are the people that help the team succeed by providing support, air cover, alignment or representation. They may be a senior sponsor, a team that work passes from, or an enabling function that doesn’t need to collaborate as closely.

This ring is about creating alignment across teams and with organisational goals and priorities. They are not as close to the centre of the onion and will have less regular contact with the core team. However, they are still a crucial extended part of the team and impact delivery.

Core

Purpose
A multi-disciplinary delivery team, working towards a common goal to deliver against a need.

Time commitment
Full time.

Collaboration, communication and feedback
Daily.

Size guide
5-9 people.

Collaborators

Purpose
Bring in specialist information, provide assurance, make decisions, reduce dependencies and blockers.

Time commitment
Varying by collaborator, this may change over time as the needs of the delivery change.

Collaboration, communication and feedback
Regularly to collaborate, build trust and enable the right conversations.

Size guide
4-12 people.

Supporters

Purpose
Provide alignment with organisational goals and other parts of the organisation.

Time commitment
Attending alignment meetings, demos and show and tells.

Collaboration, communication and feedback
Every fortnight as needed, supported with asynchronous updates.

Size guide
Up to 30 people or teams.

3. Prioritise your engagement

After creating your Team Onion, prioritise who to engage with first. Start with any core members not already committed, then think about the collaborators. Who do you need to work with immediately? Who will have the most significant impact on delivery, and who is the easiest or hardest to engage. Finally, think about your supporters.

Spend some time agreeing on the time commitment you’ll need from the people at the top of the list and what role you’d like them to play.

Think about communication patterns for your supporters. For example, will you have a regular show and tell, weekly email updates or something else?

4. Engage your wider team

Turn your prioritised list into actions by agreeing on who will engage with each person. Set some time aside to talk to them.

Remember that some of the people you want to engage with might not know about your team, your purpose, or how you work. So make sure to introduce yourselves, your goals and how they fit in.

5. Review and iterate

Your Team Onion is a living artefact; it changes with time, with the needs of delivery or as the organisation around you changes, So revisit your Team Onion regularly to keep it up to date and uncover any emerging assumptions.

Overlapping Onions

An image showing the Team Onion model overlapping with other Team Onions
Overlapping Team Onions

You likely have multiple teams, so you may find that you have overlapping Team Onions. Meaning collaborators will be working with more than one team; this can be hugely beneficial as it can help with external dependencies and information flow between teams and create efficiencies. Although it also means more complexity for those collaborators.

Be mindful that your collaborators have other priorities. You may need some coordination to ensure that collaborators aren’t overloaded and everyone is getting the most out of the team onion model.


Don’t be afraid to adapt it to work for you

Every organisation is different. The model is lightweight and intended to be adapted as you need to. Keep to the principles of small teams, breaking down silos, increasing empathy and creating shared responsibility for creating value. Look at the examples page to see how other people have used the Team Onion.

Workshop materials

Check out the tools and templates page for supporting material to help you with your Team Onion workshops.