Flat management: an interview with Susan Bloch and Philip Whiteley

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Recently I reviewed How to Manage in a Flat World: 10 Strategies to get connected to your team wherever they are by Susan Bloch and Philip Whiteley. I was really interested in the shift towards flat structure management and a more coherent approach to managing dispersed teams, so I spoke to the authors to find out more.

What has happened to business that has made teams flatter?

Most CEOs realize that they need to be fitter, leaner and faster. Only a flatter structure avoids long and tedious decision making, endless meetings (virtual or face to face) and encourages adaptiveness and new ways of doing things. In a hierarchical layered organization, decisions, and discussions have to be escalated, debated and then cascaded (often with poor communication).

The growth of specialization and high skills requires more partnerships and less hierarchical organizational arrangements. Managers may belong to many different teams, sometimes including people from outside consultancies and outsourced contractors.

Together, these developments make for a very different world from the top-down, ‘colonial’, if you like, set-ups of the last century.

That sounds exactly like a project team. As project managers, we often don’t have direct line management responsibility over our teams. Does this make any difference to how we should connect with dispersed team members?

In project management teams the same processes need to be set in place to ensure effective teamworking:

  • Clarity of vision and objective of the project
  • Understanding one another’s strengths and weaknesses
  • Norms of behavior and communication
  • Knowing who is accountable for what and by when
  • Recognizing time zones
  • Understanding cultural differences.

You have to earn trust and respect as leaders. It’s probably true, but it’s especially so in a flat team that’s geographically dispersed. You have to work hard through multi-media to communicate, and to engage people as well as get tasks done. Almost all our interviewees said that without trust, you can’t achieve what you want.

As you say, teams don’t just happen, so what’s a good starting point for building a team and getting that trust? Especially one that starts life as a group of people in a room for a project kick-off meeting?

What the people we interviewed found was that a blend of business and social contact helps to form a team; working on vision and practical objectives, and socializing after the formal meeting. This can create a bedrock of trust and shared understanding.

Good project management skills are critical for the continuing success of every organization. All project leaders should be formally trained as to how to be a project leader. This should include planning, budgeting, numeracy and conceptual thinking.

In addition interpersonal skills, communication, clarity, accuracy, accountability, setting norms of behavior and principles of cross-cultural working in the flat world should be clearly articulated and hopefully everyone has had a say in these.

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It’s way to easy for all those things – interpersonal skills, clarity etc – to go out the window when people use email. Why do you think people rely so heavily on email? Isn’t it easier and more connected to pick up the phone?

Email is particularly helpful when working across time zones. No one wants to be woken up on their cell phone at midnight. It is also sometimes useful to clarify discussions so there are no misunderstandings.

BUT the more people are able to connect personally by phone, video conference or face to face …. the better. This is not always possible on a regular basis. But a little from time to time is better than nothing.

Means of communication may depend on personal preferences. In How to Manage in a Flat World we draw attention to the fact that difference professions, as well as nations, have a ‘culture’. Software developers are more likely to be introverted that sales-people, and may be more comfortable with email than phone conversations.

However, what’s more important is to marry the type of medium used to the purpose: broadly speaking, the more sensitive the information, the more you should prefer voice and face-to-face. For more factual exchanges, email is fine.

You talk in the book about the way people carry information and call it the human internet. What do you mean by that and how can we make use of it?

The human internet is the characteristics, skills and capability of people who work with others in virtual teams. It includes learning the technological skills to use video conference, webinars, e-learning, teleconferences, podcasts etc.

Understanding cross-cultural habits, values and cultural in general avoiding the usual stereotypes. It is about empathy, listening, questioning, coaching, supporting and aligning people, while equally treating everyone with respect, and humility.

One other dimension is that, for all its challenges, diversity is good: diversity of nationality, background, professional discipline, gender and so on can create challenges in terms of developing a shared vision and understanding, but huge opportunities by harnessing many different skills and perspectives.

Organizations really consist of thousands of relationships, not structures. When we put as much energy and thought into improving these as we do into technology, the results are transformational.

What’s the top strategy from your book that you have put into practice in your working lives?

Sue says: I have initiated many programs on global managers including our next piece of research. Living and working in India has been a major learning piece from me… so here I am supporting mainly locals and some western expats to manage in a flat world.

Philip says: My favorite quote was from the venture capitalist who said: “I’ve never seen a company succeed on one person’s vision. It’s usually three or four critical people … [who] interact online all the time. They are good team players. They meet often. They develop a culture.” That has definitely influenced the way I work in teams. It isn’t always easy, because some people don’t want to communicate. But this advice really helps.

Read the review of How To Manage in a Flat World here.

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