Use Life’s Onion as a quick exercise with new teams and project groups to help set guidelines.

 “In knowledge work, the task is not given; it has to be determined. ‘What are the expected results from this work?’ is the key question in making knowledge workers productive. And it is a question that demands risky decisions. There is usually no right answer there are choices instead. And the results have to be clearly specified if productivity is to be achieved.”

Peter Drucker: writer, teacher, and consultant specializing in strategy and policy for businesses and social sector organizations.

In today’s global workforce, it is often the reality that project teams and work groups are distributed – formed from co-workers in different locations and often across organizations. Especially in knowledge work, it is frequently necessary to work with vendors, sub-contractors, consultants, and specialists to meet project goals. These groups are great in terms of having diverse talents and perspectives on a team but can pose a leadership and management challenge. It is necessary to bring people together, sometimes from very different organizational cultures, and expect them to work together smoothly. Often without a lot of time to get to know one another.

Consider using Life’s Onion in a series of quick team building activities to determine key guidelines for working together. The tool is designed to overlay any type of decision-making process by introducing a framework which leads you to dig deeper. It encourages the team to start on the surface layer of a subject or issue and work their way down the layers to get at deeper meaning and deeper understanding.

Life’s Onion can break a subject down into its component parts and help your team organize their thoughts and feelings. It can make determining team guidelines methodical and doable. It is finite – it provides a beginning and ending point.

Examine Your Workflow In A Series of Quick Team Building Activities Using Life’s Onion

Here is an example of a simple team building exercise using Life’s Onion. Look at your team’s workflow and work-style, and separate all of their tasks and responsibilities – the day-to-day functions of the project – into 3 categories: information, communication, and collaboration.

Then, ‘peel an onion’ on each of those categories to allow your team to explore how to best handle these areas. Consider what tools and technology you are using and how; think about what types of strategies and guidelines you have in place or need to institute; think about how to better manage your process and how to best solicit feedback from your team members and distributed employees.

You will find that certain tasks overlap the 3 categories and it will raise questions. Does that weekly meeting belong in communication or collaboration? Maybe a regular conference call that you thought was a ‘communication activity’ turns out to be simply an information-sharing event – and perhaps some report or document creation activity which is being handled as information sharing would actually be more effective as a collaborative meeting.

Using Life’s Onion as sort of ‘shorthand’ version of a Kaizen Board, have your team consider each category and come to group decisions about the key elements, tools, and strategies. Here are some factors to consider and examples of what might be included on the peels and petals of a team guideline Life’s Onion.


When it comes to your information needs, your primary concern is access to files, data, and research. How it will be synchronized, updated, and exchanged. Your primary goal is to determine if the data that your group needs is as current and easy to find as possible. Are special programs or data needed? Should data be centrally located?

What information does your team need?

  • Documents
  • Contact management
  • Shared calendars
  • Research Reports

Look for opportunities to improve the method or speed in which information flows throughout the organization; these opportunities can often be found in a new or unknown function of a piece of technology or service. Is the data that your group needs as current and easy to find as possible? If the amount of data is great, are there team members that can serve as topic experts or gatekeepers? This can speed the research and delivery of certain types of information. You can cut down redundancy of work by putting the most requested information together in various formats. Review information needs on a regular basis, they can change frequently depending on the nature of your teamwork.


It may sound funny, but it’s important to “communicate about how you are going to communicate.” This will allow your team to develop clear guidelines and create an environment that supports an open and free exchange of ideas. Choosing the right tools is only part of communicating well. It’s also important to discuss certain communication guidelines within your organization or team. Setting up these simple guidelines will ensure there is no miscommunication and that everyone has a clear understanding of expectations.

‘Peel an onion’ to explore your team communication with regard to:

  • Methods/Tools
    • Phone
    • Instant Message
    • Text Message
    • Email
    • Discussion Board
    • Online Meetings
  • Timeliness
  • Presence
  • Clarity
  • Synchronous vs. Asynchronous

Be sure to discuss preferred methods of communication. Some people conduct all business by phone; others prefer email as their primary form of communication. Try to use a mix of communication methods – this keeps open channels of information flowing and allows individuals to gravitate towards their preferred forms of communication.


Try to incorporate both synchronous vs. asynchronous methods of collaboration. It is also important to determine if decisions are often made as a group during meetings. If so, you’ll want to consider tools that support live polling or other features that encourage rapid decision-making.

Use a Life’s Onion to reach team consensus about collaboration:

  • Asynchronous or synchronous?
  • Are decisions made as a group during meetings?
  • With what style or tool does your team seem to be most comfortable?
  • Do project teams work as unified groups? Or do teams tend to get broken down into smaller groups that work in tandem?
  • What methods to encourage informal interaction?

For many teams, collaboration is enhanced by developing more structured policies. Look for things the group is doing successfully and use these as models and ideas for future development and best practices. Use face time to focus on relationship building rather than filling it with things you can do apart like reviewing documents, etc… Informal interaction builds important trust and respect which increases the effectiveness of collaboration.

Reference, Revisit, and Repeat

Another advantage of using Life’s Onion for team building is that unlike a simple meeting minutes document, team members are more likely to reference a physical, tangible reminder of their decisions regarding these guidelines. Also, peels/petals on Life’s Onion can be removed and replaced, so as your project evolves you can revisit any of your team guideline onions and make changes.

When new project teams are formed or team members change, repeat this quick team building activity. Remember that everyone has different workstyles and technology changes daily – with new tools cropping up all the time. So, it is important to make this type of team exercise and organizational development part of your ongoing process.