Team Design

Because everything can be designed ;)

Ashley Ann
8 min readSep 17, 2021


It feels very like a tired trope to add yet another article on leadership and team design to the internet, but I’m reminded that the more perspectives we can learn from the better.

Transformational Philosophy

I was having a conversation with a CEO of a design agency when he shared with me what the foundational value of his leadership was– discipleship. In the Bible, Jesus teaches his disciples by having them with him all the time — no books, no courses– true experiential learning.

Your staff, they also spend anywhere between 50–60% of their awake time in an environment that you also directly shape (whether or not you are intentional about what you are shaping). Your actions and decisions as a leader are formational for your staff. In a way, you are creating your own disciples.

Context Matters

Before going further, I want to share what my context is — I didn’t inherit a team and built from scratch. I acknowledge there is an additional layer of complexity to inheriting a team but I hope you can mine from what I’ve tried and learned.

Intentionally Designing a Team

I have often been a defacto leader because I’m proactive, responsible, and well, an easy target for people who don’t want to do work in a group project 😅.

As I’ve progressed into professional leadership, what I had always done was not going to work–doing all the work is not actually leadership and I realized I didn’t know how to design a team.

Just like anything else, while there are natural talents that lend themselves to supporting leadership, it is also true that leadership and team design are skills that can be learned. I didn’t come up with these things on my own — I read a lot, took a few courses, and am synthesizing below some key things I’ve tried.

What needs to happen?

You can’t force a team to be great, but there are things you can do to increase the odds:

  • Commonality — a team must have at least one thing in common, and ideally more. For us, that’s being on this team, working for this organization, and our love for Christ. How? I regularly emphasize why we are here and why we do what we do.
  • Cohesion—a team thrives when there is cohesion; not only do I have a relationship with each person, but they also have relationships with each other. How? I regularly encourage my team to go to each other first and then bring it to me. This has a bonus of reducing over-reliance on me.
  • Challenge a team must go through something together. That could be a gnarly project, team building exercises, a hack-a-thon. How? I schedule 2–4 hours each semester for design hack-a-thons that allows us to step outside of our normal routines and have fun together.
  • Culture—culture is often described as the indescribable; the water you breathe, however I’ve learned culture can be created by intentionally setting vital behaviors, rhythms and routines. How? I can’t sum it up in one sentence, so keep reading 😅

Creating Culture

Know Yourself

When someone new joins the team, I have them write a user guide as Julie Zhou recommends in her series The Looking Glass. We each have one and sometimes when there’s conflict, we go back and look at the guide and see if there’s anything there that illuminates what’s going on.

Meet one another

You have to start at the beginning, and even though it feels silly, starting here was key.

A diagram with each person sharing strengths of the other people on the team.
  1. I asked each person to fill in strengths and observations about each person on the team.
  2. We collectively decided on a superpower for each person.

This was fun and set a really positive tone for entering our time.

Align the Team

The following set of exercises are inspired by the IDEOU course on Leading Complex Projects, which gave me a great jumping point for starting a new team design.


  1. I wrote out our values and a spectrum for each person to place themselves on for where they believed we were. There was some agreement, but also disagreement.
  2. We then had a discussion on why we put ourselves where did and finding stories to illustrate our answers.
  3. We ideated on what might move us closer to our values.

Review our Rhythms and Routines

  1. I put together a table of what we currently regularly meet up for and asked a variation on Continue/Start/Stop
  2. I gave us some time to fill in the table
  3. We spent some time in verbal discussion and asking questions about what others put in

Ask what would help you in your work?

Now that we had explored our values, our rhythms and routines, and ideated in each space, I boiled it down to asking plainly, “What would help you in your work?”

This took around 2 hours and I scheduled a second session to get out of ideating and into creating a new culture.

Create a new culture

Agreeing on what our Vital Behaviors were

  1. I gave us 20 minutes to fill in at the bottom proposals for how our culture should feel, what our vital behaviors are, and what our rhythms should feel like. These had to be clearly written so that we can hold each other accountable and includes an example behavior/action.
  2. We looked at each item and collectively improved it, then moved it up into ‘Yes’ if we all agreed on the final output. There were a few things that because of resourcing or time constraints we disagreed on.

This was a great step, but after leaving the meeting I got the sense that this wasn’t quite clear enough. We had a lot of changes that we agreed to but they were context-less and a little scattered.

Setting new Rhythms & Routines

I looked over all the ideas and found themes: this team should have fun, we should learn, we should know what each other is up to, and we should be able to get help.

  1. I gave the team a blank calendar
  2. I asked them to construct a weekly routine that would accomplish those 4 goals.
  3. I asked them to clearly describe what would happen in that routine.
  4. I left the meeting
  5. I came back and listened to what they proposed.
  6. I synthesized from everything we had talked about a new weekly schedule.

What I didn’t expect: When they shared what they had designed for team time, one of my staff said, “Ashley — we see that you put a lot of time into creating and preparing learning for us. What if we did Ted Talks or talks from other designers? We would get other voices speaking in and you wouldn’t have to work as hard on that.

A note on collaboration and decision-making:

Collaboration is everyone getting to give input, not everyone deciding.

I had observed that our team was repeatedly asking for ways to feel less lonely while working remotely, yet the calendar they constructed had an entire day where we didn’t connect. As our leader, I checked in to ask about this and then I made the decision to keep standup every day and kept their input of the format they had asked for.

Keep it Going

It’s really easy to kick something off with a lot of steam, but it’s easy for things to get in the way and lose steam. Part of my job is to be watching for that and continuing to be intentional.

Modeling what you want

I periodically review our vital behaviors and make sure I am doing them. I keep my project management tool updated, I bring work to design crits; I am not exempt from our agreements.

Revaluate periodically

At the end of the day our culture, vital behaviors, and rhythms should serve us, not hurt us. There are seasons where a structure that was set doesn’t help anymore and I want my team to know we are empowered to change it. After the work above, we took 3 weeks to try it out and made a few minor tweaks. We work in an academic schedule, so going forward I now use Fall, Spring, and Summer as trigger points to re-evaluate, if something else doesn’t cause us to re-evaluate.

Final Thoughts

I intentionally didn’t share what our end agreements and routines are — my hope is this is a starting point where you will create them together and find what works for your team.

I love talking about this and am always up for learning from others — drop a response below!

Bonus Learning:

Since many of us are hybrid/remote, I thought I’d throw in a few fun things we’ve done together to help us continue to have fun and get to know one another.

Mood Meter

This was something one of my team members found and asked to try out. In addition to being a helpful prompt, it is good for me as a high thinker and low feeler to daily pinpoint things I am feeling.

Roses, Buds, & Thorns

Everybody shares 2 roses of things going well, 1 bud of something that is growing, and 1 thorn that is a challenge right now.

This gives us an opportunity to see the good that is happening, pay attention to what is new, and speak into challenges that others are having.

Challenge Bowl

Each team member chooses a number with a question in their comfort level and I would reveal the sticky note behind it.


Did this help you?

You can contribute to my book fund so that I can keep learning & writing!

Ashley Crutcher is the Director of Experience Strategy at InterVarsity located in Madison, WI. She tweets at @ashleyspixels and enjoys cuddling with her furkiddos, crocheting/knitting, ringing handbells, and thinking too much about everything.



Ashley Ann

Digital Design Ministry Leader