5 Dysfunctions of a Digital Team

Whether you work in the realm of digital development or not, your teams are without a shadow of a doubt, already digital. Whether you work in an organisation or as a freelance professional, you work in and with digital teams. The digital age is upon us and you are in it and a part of it whether you realise it or not.

1. Silos in Digital Teams

Encouraging, enabling or tolerating silo mentality is not good managerial practice by any stretch of the imagination. It describes a situation in which co-workers tend to operate independently to such an extent that information does not flow fluidly across teams or departments. I believe that most of the time employees do not choose to work in Silos, nor do they do it with the intention of gaining the upper hand, deliberately withholding information or sabotaging co-workers’ progress. They simply have their own, often fine-tuned systems for getting stuff done, having found a way to operate that works for them individually, without considering, or even being expected to consider the implications and how their modus operandi affects overall productivity.

Clearly, the end result can be described as the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, or even attempting to do. Lots of hands, all waggling around independently from one another, all doing their best.

Let’s contextualise with a practical example.

John (or Mary) is officially responsible for organising or producing an end result, it could be an event, a campaign, a product or it could be a process that sits within a broader context, or it could even be an entire project. John has a lot of hands-on experience, knows his organisation inside out, what it represents and what his responsibilities are. John has always worked extremely hard and has always come through in the end. John is one of those employees that organisations might define as “a keeper”. 

John has folders on the server, uses Word, Excel, and Powerpoint with proficiency and his desk is often covered with multi-coloured post-its. John knows exactly where everything is and precisely what needs to be done. In fact, one might conclude that John knows more about everything that relates to the operations he is involved in than anyone else in the organisation.

So John is a keeper, and he not only puts his heart and soul into everything he does, but he also knows so much about how to do stuff that people often go to him for information as they attempt to navigate the operational processes they find themselves entwined in. John is always very helpful when colleagues request any kind of support or information. John is polite and well mannered.

This scenario is possibly one of the most difficult to deal with because contrary to many definitions and explanations of Silos, I propose that Silos, as already stated at the beginning of this story, are not necessarily about power struggles or turf wars. The most difficult form of Silos to cure in any organisation is when there is not bad will fuelling them, but rather total devotion, on the part of the employees working and operating within their own carefully knitted cocoons.

John is the guy who knows how stuff is done, so to some degree, he is also an example for colleagues, particularly those new entries who inevitably find themselves aspiring to be in control of their own work just like John is in control of his. John is a dedicated role model employee.

Goodwill and best intentions are all around, but everyone is going in different directions.

What is Silo mentality and what causes it?

Here’s a quick snippet from Wikipedia.

“In management, the term silo mentality often refers to information silos in organizations. Silo mentality is caused by divergent goals of different organizational units. It can also be described as a variant of the principal-agent problem. Silo mentality preferably occurs in larger organizations and can lead to a decreased performance and has a negative impact on the corporate culture. Silo mentality can be countered by the introduction of shared goals, the increase of internal networking activities and the flattening of hierarchies.

Predictors of the occurrence of silos are

  • Number of employees
  • Number of organizational units within the whole organization
  • Degree of specialization
  • Number of different incentive mechanisms

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_silo

What’s the cure for Silo Mentality?

The best cure for Silo mentality and dysfunctional digital teams is an organisation-wide deep dive into the best practices for online collaboration, Agile Project Management, and Scrum. This kind of strategy can come from the top down, or, depending on the company culture in terms of autonomy, from the bottom up. Either way, introducing change will require some preparation and careful planning.


2. Personality fits in Digital Teams

Teams are about personalities, not just skills. There are lots of studies on this topic and lots of different angles depending on the contexts in which they are discussed. For simplicity, we can break it down to five easily recognisable personality traits that undoubtedly have a profound effect on how teams function.

If we were to go back to John (and his colleagues) and attempt to score him/them from 1 to 10 for the following personality traits we could come up with a whole range of possibilities. I personally find this part of the process particularly fascinating, it’s like looking at a kaleidoscope of characters and every edition is always unique.

Openness in Digital Teams

Scoring high on the openness scale often implies that adventure is perceived as good, and new experiences are fun and interesting. John might well be an adventure freak when he is out of the office, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is open to having someone turn his carefully developed processes on their heads when he comes into the office. In fact, being an outdoor adventure freak could quite possibly be just another one of John’s rigid mental boxes he lives in. The degree to which John is open to input when it comes to how he does his work could indicate whether he has adopted a Silo mentality by choice, or whether he simply has not been invited to evaluate alternatives. If his colleagues score low on the openness scale they too may be reluctant to put forward new ideas for more effective teamwork, even if they happen to have some interesting and potentially constructive notions on the topic.

However, sometimes we are aware of what we (or our colleagues) don’t know, often, we simply don’t know what we don’t know and need a little nudge from our leaders. Perhaps John would be totally open to exploring and experimenting with new ways of collaborating in team, perhaps he just needs someone to lead him there.

Conscientiousness in Digital Teams

Conscientious workers are often well organised, diligent and dependable. Of course, it becomes clear that being a good, conscientious worker doesn’t necessarily correlate to the degree to which they tend to work in silos. In John’s case, he will be conscientious about what he perceives as important … is he conscientious when it comes to doing “his” job, helping and supporting his colleagues, or serving the organisation to the best of his ability? Well, perhaps that may depend on his “Openness” score. As the Zen master might say … it’s all connected. It will certainly depend on how his leaders choose to steer him towards his mission within the group.

Extraversion in Digital Teams

What if John is an extrovert? What if he is so extrovert by nature that he scores a whopping 10? How likely would he be to be easily lead or influenced? While his “openness” score may tend to be high, how conscientious might he be? Extroverts are typically very sociable individuals and draw their energy from others so that would lead me to the conclusion that his need for interaction would possibly counteract his tendency to operate in silos. John is imaginary, so who knows? What about John’s superiors? Does their degree of extraversion have any impact on how things work?

Agreeableness in Digital Teams

Agreeable people are often trusting and compassionate. They (obviously) tend to get along well with others because they like to help. Can an agreeable person get stuck in silos without even realising it? John works in silos, can he still be agreeable to others? Of course, he can! John could be so agreeable, sociable and conscientious that he becomes unmovable in his silos.

Emotional stability (or Neuroticism) in Digital Teams

What happens when someone upsets John’s system and attempts to introduce new ways of doing things? Will he fly off the handle and freak out, or will he stay cool and collected and calmly defend his ways and means of working? Is he emotionally stable or is he tending towards neurotic?

What happens when John can’t get it all done on his own and ends up doing overtime without pay, which eventually becomes the norm, every day, every week? Does he burn out or call in sick? What happens if John can’t even accept the idea of being sick because nobody is capable of taking care of everything in his absence?


3. Overload in Digital Teams

Overload happens. We’ve all been there to some extent at some point in our lives. Those times when we just can’t possibly get it all done on time. As students, we may end up sacrificing a grade (or subject) or two in our exams because there is just too much to take in and not enough time to assimilate it all. As professionals, we may not get the report done on time, or the product to market as planned. Overload is not about failing to meet deadlines, it’s about having an impossible and unreasonable amount of work to process, a never-ending backlog piling up.

In a dysfunctional digital team, constant overload is a clear alarm bell ringing loud for all to here. Pressure can be a healthy stimulus, but constant overload is not healthy and will sooner or later result in burnout of some form. People leave or get fired. Overload is as bad a silos, but they are often both parts of the same vicious circle with silos leading to overload and overload driving more silos.


4. Lack of digital vision

The digital age is upon us. We are right here in the thick of it. There is no getting away from it (ok, admittedly I have a slight bias here). Organisations and teams that understand and embrace this reality are the ones succeeding and growing. Those who still see everything “digital” as a burden or a “nice to have” are destined for more pain. Organisations that are not even aware of “what” their digital reality is are headed for big trouble. Those organisations that are aware of their digital shortcomings but have not yet formulated a plan for “how” to gain a competitive and/or operational advantage from digital transformation are one step ahead in comparison, but those who are actively working towards building internal digital competencies are already winning. 


5. Lack of organisational vision

“We’ve always done it this way … “ 

“We don’t have time to change or upheave processes (because we are in a constant state of emergency) … “

Why do so many organisations lack organisational vision?

The leaders are responsible for making sure that everyone knows the organisation’s purpose but often only look towards the outside. Leaders need to be steering the organisation like a ship in the sea, and unfortunately for many as they focus on consulting their maps and predicting the weather conditions they assume and expect that all hands on deck know what they are supposed to be focussing on and how they are supposed to be doing it. The same leaders may feel reassured by the fact that the direction their ship is sailing in may be in line with the highest level of vision imaginable .. they are indeed heading north, or south, in a straight line, perhaps.

What they don’t always realise is that the team rowing on the left is pulling in the opposite direction to the team pulling on the right, half of the team on the left are rowing on beat while the other half are rowing off-beat and so on. Even in the best of weather conditions, the teams are needlessly and very consistently exhausting themselves while each devoted rower is convinced that he or she is the only person responsible for saving the day and keeping the ship in a straight line.

Some jump ship. Some start drinking the seawater and go insane, while others sit back and witness opportunity after opportunity sail by, others watch and wait for the next opportunity to move up the line.

Make no mistake, dysfunctional digital teams represent unlimited opportunities so whether your organisation or team is already riding the digital wave and doing well or not there is always room for improvement and there has never been a better time to start than now.

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