Virtual Teams: Applying order to chaos

If you are new here, you can catch up on earlier posts and podcasts or find out more about ALT, the organisation we work for as senior staff. We really appreciate comments and feedback and welcome questions or suggestions for future posts.

This time we’re talking about team culture, upgrading workflows, the ISO9001 Standard, the MIT90s Framework, our dislike of management terminology and the impact of being busy on communication and collaboration as a virtual team.


Maren: one of the themes we keep coming back to is how to improve our processes and I have been thinking about that in relation to my personal approach, what we do as a team and how we function as an organisation: first, on a personal basis I have been doing some upgrading to how I manage my own to do lists. This has brought me back to re-reading one of the first books on productivity I ever read, Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done and his “five steps that apply order to chaos” are still a useful reminder for me now. I’ve also been looking at the ISO9001 Standard and the seven quality management principles that inform the standard. Management speak notwithstanding these principles are very much what we do day to day, even if as an organisation we don’t articulate our approach in that manner. It’s useful to review these things from time to time, to remind ourselves of the baseline of how organisations function and how what we do aligns with that, similar to the Open Leadership Handbook we recently looked at. But the part of the puzzle I am most interested in at the moment is how we communicate what we do to our Members and the public in general and I have seen some interesting examples of how other organisations do that, for example the ETUG survey results and Open Education Week sharing its impact summary. One of the challenges we have as a small organisation is to balance getting things done with ensuring what we do is visible and I have the feeling that the busier we are the less communicative we become about what’s been achieved.

Martin: There is a culture aspect of this that is worth unpicking. Last month we highlighted the difference between ‘cultural fit’ and ‘cultural alignment’. Evolving our culture to make they way we communicate to our Members and the public needs us to consider how we adjust our cultural alignment as a team. With a smaller team resource is always a huge factor and change requires time. At the moment given we have two vacancies in our team that we are filling there is perhaps an opportunity to do something as the dynamic in our team changes. In a previous learning technology role culture was a hot topic, in particular, how do you change organisational culture. Something often discussed then was the MIT90s framework in which Scott Morton (1991) purposes that organisations are comprised of “five sets of forces in dynamic equilibrium among themselves even as the organisation is subjected to influences from an external environment”.

MIT90s framework
Image: Lucas D. Introna & Bee Leng Tiow (1997) – Thinking About Virtual Organisations and the Future

In revisiting the MIT90s framework I came across this in the conference paper “Thinking About Virtual Organisations and the Future

Seeing the organisation in this light has made business managers realise the importance for the organisation to transform to meet the needs of the time. But more importantly, underneath a successful transformation is two conditions that must be met for this transformation. They are: (1) the creation of a vision which must be clearly understood and supported by everyone in the organisation; and (2) the ability to align infrastructures (such as information technology, work structures and processes) with the business goals. No matter what form or structures the organisation takes, these conditions must remain true; even for the virtual organisation.

Lucas D. Introna & Bee Leng Tiow (1997) – Thinking About Virtual Organisations and the Future

So in terms of developing a culture where staff are more focused on visibility and communication you could argue that the changing team dynamic is an opportunity for everyone to engage in a new vision and ensure our infrastructures (IT, processes, structure etc.) are aligned. I feel I’ve taken us down a bit of a rabbit hole with this but I’m interested to know if you have an answer to “the busier we are the less communicative we become”?

Maren: My response to that would be that the busier we get the more likely we are to loose perspective. In any busy team, or role, there is always a balance to be struck between getting things done and finding time to think about things – and different factors can make it harder to find that balance: lots of change, things happening outside of work, ill health, heavy workloads etc. Signs of not quite finding that balance in my experience are things like not using project plans or to do lists properly, but instead allowing one’s inbox to dictate what to focus on (we talked about noisy versus important things in a past post), arranging to catch up and not remembering what about, feeling stressed but not that things improve when you tick things off your list etc. Kindness towards one self and others is key here. Giving oneself a break is particularly important when things are busy and can be hard to do. And it always helps to go back to basics, like the to do list strategy I mentioned earlier, and use the processes you have in place to regain some of that perspective, which in turn makes it easier to communicate what you are doing, progress being made and importantly achievements to colleagues and stakeholders. One simple tweak we have made this year is to add to our Operational Plan a column that prompts everyone to consider how they would sum up the output of a task in 280 characters or less and a column which asks us to note what’s new in any given area of operations. We are just about to make use of these new elements for the first time and I am curious to see how useful that will be for us to gain that sense of perspective and balance as a team. I really like our plan and find it really useful to track strategic progress and operational load, and it’s been great to tweak things to try and make it even better. One of the things you talk about is shared vision and that is a really interesting topic when like us you are in the final phase of delivering a really strong, shared vision and strategy before creating a new one. When people get involved in an organisation at this stage in the cycle, how can we best approach that? Any thoughts?

Martin: For me I think it’s important to remember that there is a distinction between our strategy and our processes, recognising that they are still interconnected, but that our processes are likely to have more impact on our culture. It is obviously still useful if our team engages with our strategy but I don’t see that as essential if they are delivering, it being the responsibility of management to make sure they are delivering the right thing. That said, there is probably some overlap between our values and processes, for example, something like openness is hopefully reflected in some of what we do in terms of some of the practicalities of sharing resources (e.g. documents, slides and other outputs are Creative Commons licensed and publically shared), but again you could argue some are more engaged with the processes of finding sharing resources under Creative Commons rather than the underlying value of openness. So ultimately I don’t think the stage we are at in our strategy has that much impact on our culture or vision. Where it has a bigger impact is potentially around processes, for example, if our next strategy has a different focus there might be different performance indicators that our processes have to deliver. So in terms of bring new people in to the team I think by focusing on the processes there is an opportunity to give them a sense of our existing culture and vision. Something I think important to remember is new people may bring new culture and vision which can be greatly beneficial to the organisation.  

Maren:There is a lot to talk about here and I have many different thoughts in response that it could be interesting to explore, but in a nutshell, the key thing for me is for everyone to understand, established staff and new colleagues alike, why we do what we do. You are right that maybe where we are in a strategy cycle isn’t as important as long as everyone is on the same page about what needs to happen, why and how. I conceptualise the why as the strategic perspective, the how as reflecting our values and the what as the practical delivery. Maybe there’s a podcast in the offing for our next episode, so that we can talk about some of these questions in more detail, but one final thought I have on the communication front is a ‘Tell someone about it’ or ‘Who needs to know about this’ checkbox that could be added to everything.. reminding us to keep communicating as we start the busiest period of the year.


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  • Paul Hollins

    I’ve read your post with much interest a lot of which takes me back to my days teaching business studies to students in monochrome times. My flippant post on Twitter re ISO 9001 was, on reflection, perhaps not so flippant. For me there is too much bureaucratic complexity added by the process detailed and your organisational interpretation of it . As you say you do much of what is required now. I’m also a bit uncomfortable with the comment re strategy (Staff not necessarily engaging with it). A more contemporary approach for the Association might be to engage in “service design” methodology. From my perspective at all levels of recursion within the organisation there should be engagement with strategy (even the operational) perhaps look at the Viable Systems Model (VSM)for inspiration with all levels of the “system” exercising some autonomy within a negotiated strategic framework. The advantage of such an approach in a distributed organisation is strategic alignment at all levels of the organisation and ownership of the activities at all levels of recursion. I’d be happy to contribute if required.

  • Gabi Witthaus

    Hi Maren and Martin, thank you for sharing this. Your post reflects a lot of the issues that I have experienced in teams. I would love to see the template for your Operational Plan, as I can envisage such a thing being useful but a lot of work to create and maintain… Is this something you can share, along with a few tips on how to use it? (Sorry, I just added to your workload!)

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