MVC: Create a Collaborative Team Map

A simple thing to do when your team is overwhelmed by too much to do

Happy Tuesday to you!

We’re hearing from more people about feeling overwhelmed at work. Today we want to share a simple collaboration technique that teams can use to begin taming that overwhelm. Just want the download? Here you go.


  • Why: Teams feeling overwhelmed at work need a simple way to reduce their stress and anxiety levels.

  • What: Creating a collaborative team map can reduce workplace stress by providing the clarity your team needs to get organized and refine your priorities.

  • MVC Guide: Instructions and examples showing how to make the map, explore it together, and turn the talk into action.

Creating a collaborative team map is an MVC approach to the problem.
MVC: Minimal, Valuable Collaboration.

MVC techniques are simple to use, apply to any team, work without any special tools or technology, and yield asymmetric returns on the time invested. Minimal refers to the effort required to learn and use these techniques, not their value. You can use MVC techniques like the collaborative map as a starting point in a workshop, or to kick off a more organic conversation in your everyday, regular team meetings. Check it out.

In our last article, we explored what it means to be overwhelmed at work, and how there are two parts to it:

  1. A whole lot of something you need to deal with and

  2. Feeling like it's too much so you can’t deal with it.

Overwhelm can come from too many ToDo’s, from the severity of any one task, or a combination of both

If you look up what to do when you're feeling overwhelmed, you'll find several methods that all share these basic steps.

  1. Pause. Realize your feelings are common and that you're not alone.

  2. Take a deep breath. Physiological sighs ftw!

  3. Make a list of everything that's overwhelming you. Get it out of your head and somewhere that you can begin to feel more control over it.

  4. Organize the list into categories. (The categories vary based on who's framework you're using.)

  5. Take action. Do one thing at a time, and get that off your list.

This process implies that, once you get organized, it's simply a matter of marching one step at a time toward the blissful Land of Done, where all the to-dos are ta-Done! and you can chillax with a fruity drink.

Watch out! Relax too much and you might be absorbed right into your chair! This happy dystopia was brought to you by DALL•E.

Of course, no such place exists on this side of the pearly gates. If you're breathing and building, there are things to do. So no matter how clever our system is or how much we optimize our team productivity, we're never going to cross off all the things on our lists.

Getting everything done is a myth. It will never happen. And that's ok!

We don't need to deal with all the tasks to reign in overwhelm. We need to feel like we can deal with them, and see the path forward.

This is good news because both the academic research and experience from practice show that we get this benefit at step 3: getting the list out of our heads and into a format where we can see it more easily.

Put simply, uncertainty is upsetting. Making the list reduces uncertainty and makes a promise that someone (probably your future self) will take care of these items. It also makes it much easier to select what to do next.

Teams Need Maps, Not Lists

Most productivity advice is for individuals. At work, however, we work with whole teams of people who might be struggling with a collective sense of overwhelm.

The advice for individuals doesn't translate directly to teams. Imagine what would happen if everyone on your team were to list out everything that's overwhelming them in one long bulleted list. Do you think that would help?

Yeah, me either. That inventory of pain isn't going to make anyone happier.

If you printed out the combined to-do list for everyone in your company, how far would it stretch? To the moon and back? What a terrifying bedtime story that would be. Thanks again, DALL•E

Instead, teams should create a map. With a map, teams add items one at a time and visually group similar items together.

Maps are not to-do lists. Maps are a super simple, organically structured way to visualize your work, making it easier for you to see exactly what you're dealing with.

Maps show:

  • How your work overlaps, and opportunities to streamline it.

  • Who's taking care of what, so you don't have to worry about it.

  • Any off-track tasks that have crept in so that you can drop them.

  • Where things may be slipping through the cracks.

Once the map is assembled, you can:

  • Focus the team on one section at a time, further reducing the overwhelm.

  • Move things around to answer new questions

  • Take items off, add new ones, or ignore them entirely.

  • Funnel items on this organic map into a structured visual framework for developing your strategy, setting priorities, and managing tasks.

  • Come back to it any time your workload or priorities change

Image credit DALL•E


MVC: How to Create a Collaborative Team Map

Use this when your group is feeling overwhelmed or uncertain. This technique can start conversations about strategy, tool selection, task assignments, and more. See details in the handout.

Basic Instructions:

  1. Ask your starting question.

  2. Give everyone at least 5 minutes to silently write down all their answers on individual sticky notes (physical or digital). If possible, each person should use a different color note.

  3. Team members take turns placing one answer at a time on the map until all the ideas are posted. Tell people:

    • If someone shares an idea that you wrote down too, go ahead and post it up at the same time. Let's keep the duplicates together.

    • If your idea is different but related, post your idea near to that first one. Let's share all the related ideas before sharing something entirely new.

    • If you don't understand an item, you can ask clarifying questions, but hold any critique for now.

    • If something new occurs to you, add it.

  4. Discuss what you see and decide on your next actions.

💡 Tip: You can evolve your map by remapping the items into a matrix or other framework. This creates additional clarity and is especially helpful when priorities aren't clear.

🪤 Trap: Don't assume that you always need to. Often, creating and discussing this simple map is enough to get a group unstuck.

See the handout for useful starting and follow-up questions.

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Examples of Team Maps in Action

At work, we've used maps like this to work through team responsibilities, frustrations and friction, decision rights, collaboration audits, and to learn "who knows what."

Hmm. Now that we look at this subscriptions audit, maybe we don’t need all of those tools after all.

For example, one new manager recently inherited a team and had no idea where to start. So, he and the team built one of these maps showing everything they thought they were responsible for at work. The manager learned more about the people on his team, what they thought their job was, and where that matched with what he'd been told.

This 20-minute map saved him from months of slowly learning he'd been fed a story by leadership that his new team knew nothing about.

I can't really share the details or pictures from these private work maps with you, so here are some examples from a different sort of team: people who live together.

This summer, both Dave and I created maps at home for different reasons.

Mapping Responsibilities

One day, my daughter had just started a new school, my workload was off the hook, my husband was launching a major client project, and the garbage needed to go out.

The garbage - anyone could take it out. Who's job is that, anyway?

Just like at work, there are countless details to manage at home and it's not always clear who is going to do what. We were coping by pretending not to notice and passive-aggressively expecting someone else to do it, which wasn't getting it done. And that was making everyone even grumpier.

So we built a map. Each of us used a different color sticky, and we posted our individual responsibilities on the basement door.

sticky notes loosely grouped on a white door

Happy, ugly, useful! It’s not about aesthetics. It’s about making your life easier, and this works.

This makes me so happy!! 😁 Here's why:

  • The groupings that emerged made it easier to remember things. For instance, when John added 'walk the dog,' it reminded us that my daughter overlooked her yard-cleaning duty. 💩 I wonder why she'd let that slip?

  • We found several things we wrongly assumed were being handled by others. They were falling through the cracks. Damn those assumptions! Now those responsibilities have owners.

  • We found and eliminated duplicate efforts.

  • Now we know who is supposed to do what AND how to talk through unassigned responsibilities in the future.

  • Our map primarily tracks ongoing duties, peppered with a few specific projects. When we finish a project, we get to tear up the note and throw a little party!

  • If I own a thing and it's not done, I have no one to blame but myself. This is so much better than passive-aggressively resenting everyone around me for failing to complete a task they never signed up for in the first place.

  • Personal accountability is clear. If I want someone else's task done faster, I can remind and offer to help. There's no call for nagging.

Mapping out a Project

Dave recently moved his household. His family built a map of everything they needed to do on the kitchen cupboards. Like our Responsibilities Map, Dave's Housemoving Map reduced their sense of being overwhelmed and made it easier to see how to make progress.

Our cabinets were perfect whiteboards to map out moving responsibilities by owner and date.

When the Map Alone Doesn't Cut It

First, I can't emphasize this strongly enough: mapping it out works really well all by itself.

This is a minimal VALUABLE collaboration technique, yielding big rewards in terms of clarity and reduced anxiety with minimal time and effort. It works a thousand times better than just making a list, and a million times better than ignoring the conversation because you're too busy.

That said, sometimes the map reveals that much of what's overwhelming your team originates outside of the team. That's a good time to break out Circles and Soup, which makes it easy to distinguish between what your group can control directly and what they need to address in other ways.

We interviewed Diana Larsen, one of the Circles and Soup inventors. Stay tuned for that in our next article.

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