Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 27;   July 5, 2023: Fractures in Virtual Teams

Fractures in Virtual Teams

by

Virtual teams — teams not co-located — do sometimes encounter difficulties maintaining unity of direction, or even unity of purpose. When they fracture, they do so in particular ways. Bone fractures provide a metaphor useful for guiding interventions.

Teams do sometimes fracture — they break into subteams that contend with each other for control or dominance, instead of working together to achieve a shared objective. And virtual teams are particularly vulnerable to fracture. To treat these ideas with the care they deserve, allow me to begin with some meanings for three words: team, virtual, and fracture.

Team

A frost-covered spider web

A frost-covered spider web. Damaged spider webs provide another useful metaphor for fractured virtual teams. Webs are effective only to the extent they are intact. When damaged, the damage reduces the ability of the web to capture prey. Categories of web damage could potentially provide suggestions for categorizing fractures in virtual teams. Photo "Frosty Spider Web" by John Brandon, for the "Yellowstone Digital Slide File", 1970. Courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

In organizations, a team is a grouping of individuals tasked with performing functions that are intended to achieve a set of related objectives. Members of the team might provide different kinds of expertise and skills, or they might all perform similar functions. Usually there is a designated leader, and a manager who acts as the team owner.

Virtual

A virtual team is a team whose members are separated geographically by distances great enough to make coming together inconvenient or too costly. Some virtual teams meet face-to-face occasionally; some have never met, and some never will. They communicate by web conference, videoconference, telephone, text, email, and so on.

Teams — virtual or co-located — are composed to provide all capabilities their missions require. Some make planned adjustments to their rosters to meet needs that occur from time to time. But sometimes they require capabilities that no one anticipated. When that happens the team adjusts its roster to include the missing roles, and moves on.

Other difficulties are less amenable to solution, and that's when the risk of fracture is highest.

Fracture

Most teams are subject to the effects of organizational rivalries, destructive conflict, conflicts of interest, bullying, and the rest of the catalog of organizational dysfunction. But unlike other teams, virtual teams are subject to dysfunctions that arise, in part, from the structure of the team itself, and how that structure interacts with the structure and policies of the hosting organization.

An example of the unique vulnerabilities of virtual teams might be helpful. All agree that many parts of the organization must work together to complete the team's mission. If that weren't true, there would be no need for a virtual team. But what might remain unsettled is the relative importance of the various parts of the organization represented in the team. People physically located at one site might feel that they're more important than people located at another site. And because that ranking can change over the course of the engagement, there can be no final settlement of the ranking disputes. Ranking disputes can arise repeatedly and indefinitely.

For all teams, success is possible only if the team and all its elements succeed. When a team fractures into subteams, some subteams come to believe that they can succeed independently of the others. This is likely a false belief, because the team was assembled on the basis of an assumption of success based on interdependence.

Categories of fracture

Still, teams do fracture. [Whiting 2019] And when they do, they fracture in ways that can be analogous to the ways bones fracture. Here's a brief catalog of types of team fractures, guided by the categorization of bone fractures.

Greenstick fracture
In bones, this fracture is incomplete, and the bone is bent.
In greenstick fractures of virtual teams, some members at some sites feel that success is more likely if they work independently. To some degree, they are alienated from the team, and although they aren't alone in their perceptions, the team as a whole doesn't share their belief.
This sort of team fracture is more likely than others to have a strong personal component. Difficulties in relationships within one site are strongly indicated.
Transverse fracture
In long bones, the bone is broken at right angles to the bone's axis. There may or may not be displacement of the two parts of the bone.
In transverse fractures of virtual teams, members of the team located at a particular site openly acknowledge that they doubt that the team's success is possible if it continues along its current course. In some cases, multiple sites join forces to strike out in a different direction.
Intervention with the breakaway sites can succeed, but there is an elevated probability that they have good reason to have taken the action they did.
Comminuted fracture
In bones, the breaks result in several pieces. Displacement of the pieces is likely.
This type of fracture in virtual teams has much in common with transverse team fracture. However, in comminuted virtual team fracture, multiple sites decide to strike out in directions of their own.
Successful intervention likely requires reconvening all team leaders for a restart of the effort.
Buckled fracture
In bones, buckled fractures are caused by compression, usually along the axis of a long bone. The fracture is incomplete.
In virtual teams, a buckled fracture occurs when a team is under extreme deadline pressure that falls most heavily on one site. Team members at that site might experience high levels of stress that could threaten the health of their relationships with team members at other sites, or even their relationships with team members at their own sites.
Isolating the cause of the intense localized pressure that led to the fracture would be helpful in formulating an approach to healing the fracture.
Pathologic fracture
In bones, this sort of break is a result of a disease weakening the bone.
In virtual teams, pathologic fracture can be the result of rigid siloing, or organizational weakness, or the weakness of the organization's market position. For example, a weak market position can be the root cause of elevated voluntary terminations, or the inability to recruit capable personnel. Staff shortages can then expose the virtual team to fracture.
Interventions based on the proposition that the root cause lies in the virtual team are unlikely to be effective. Successful intervention must address the causes of organizational weakness.

Last words

The analogy between virtual team fractures and bone fractures is intriguing but imperfect. Use it as a guide for the intuition. Go to top Top  Next issue: Would Anyone Object?  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

Footnotes

Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Whiting 2019]
Mark E. Whiting, Allie Blaising, Chloe Barreau, Laura Fiuza, Nik Marda, Melissa Valentine, and Michael S. Bernstein. "Did it have to end this way? Understanding the consistency of team fracture." Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 3, no. CSCW (2019): 1-23. Available here Retrieved 19 June 2023 Back

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