Conquering the Perils of Distributed Teams

We live in a world where co-location of team members is less and less common. Whether your organization is contracting out pieces of a project or has embraced the reality of telecommuting, there are some dangers that you should be aware of. For example, email and chat are handy forms of communication, but they leave much room for interpretation. And keeping a team operating efficiently across physical and even artificial boundaries can be very challenging, especially as project pressures rise.

While scouring the Internet for good fodder, I ran across an article written by Derek Wade and John Pupolo: Multi-Dimensional Management: Avoiding Calcification or Fragmentation on Distributed Teams. It does an excellent job of explaining the delicate balance that all teams try to achieve, and how that balance is threatened by the challenges that distributed teams face.

Identifying the Symptoms


Fragmentation is the the effect of a team breaking into silos. Geographical separation very commonly leads to fragmentation, due to the lack of real physical face-time. Emotion and intent are hard to convey via email, chat, and even telepresence and screen-sharing. These effects lead to frustration and lack of trust and collaboration between team members. The article also points out that companies continue to invest heavily in collaboration software to bridge this gap so they can make the seeming cost-effectiveness of distributed teams work.


While the article identifies calcification as a separate failure mode, I believe it’s closely related or even derived from the effects of fragmentation. Calcification occurs when project management introduces more process and/or ceremonies to try to compensate for the lack of cooperation across teams or silos developed in fragmentation. The rigidity that heavy processes introduce often causes team members to lose interest, drift further apart, and lose sight of the real goal of delivering a product.

Re-establishing a Center of Gravity

The article calls out gravity as the force that draws/holds a team together, and notes:

Gravity is the dimension to control when you cannot reduce separation, and there are many possible sources for this stabilizing and unifying force.”

There must be something that unites the members of a team… across physical space, beliefs, and differing roles. Usually, this gravity is provided via leadership and guidance. In the absence of a strong gravitational force effective enough to draw the team together, “Individual personalities magnify to fill the void.” Many of us have experienced, or even been, one of those personalities on a team. In the end, someone on the team needs to identify the loss of gravity early and take actions to restore it.

Some strategies to create or strengthen team gravity are:

  • A solid mission
  • A well-groomed plan
  • Team-building /ice-breaking sessions
  • Milestones/goals and recognition for achieving them

There are many ways teams can be revived, and all team members need to be taken into account. Happiness and a sense of purpose breed creativity and ultimately success. Don’t let the ship go down by ignoring the warning signs of fragmentation and calcification!