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Arrgh! The world is flat after all – the ancient philosophers were right! I don’t know how I’ll cope!

Actually, this book isn’t about coping with changes to the natural laws of Planet Earth, but rather how to manage people who are scattered all over it.

How to Manage in a Flat World is subtitled 10 strategies to get connected to your team wherever they are. It’s a whole lot more than that though – you have to read through a part and a half before you get to the 10 strategies in chapter 8.

Susan Bloch and Philip Whiteley tackle how work has changed. There are no longer clear lines between what is work and what is home. People have fluid relationships with work, as a result of being ‘always on’ and this is even more challenging for people managing international teams – as many of us do these days.

A key theme throughout the book is fostering trust. The authors write:

Trust and teamwork are not the soft matters that one may or may not attend to. They are the means by which services and products are delivered. Those times spent socializing or gossiping with the team; that extra phone call to Christina or Dmitri working in a small group in a different country, simply to ask: “How are you?” actually form a key part of making businesses work. If the LAN or internet connections are running slowly or malfunctioning, we take it for granted that the IT support people come in and fix it. If the human connections are faltering, we need to take it just as seriously – indeed, more so; after all, technology is designed and run by people, too. The electronic and human Internets demand equal attention.

It’s this concept of the human internet that particularly got my interest. Project managers have understood the importance of people skills for years, but global project teams have made it much harder to do that side of project management well.

The authors talk about blending business meetings with team-building work and ‘time to hang out together’ as being “highly beneficial to all parties.” If you are the kind of project manager who wants to get down to business straight away and miss out the small talk, you might want to rethink the way you run your meetings to allow for some down time.

It’s particularly hard to do this with dispersed teams if you need to rely on video or phone conferencing and the book highlights the fact that face-to-face meetings are essential for successful team management.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part covers the dynamics of flat, dispersed teams. It looks at the medium and the message, setting direction, national culture and the fact that the command and control leadership style doesn’t work when the relationship is about quality, depth and trust, not just doing what you are told.

The second part discusses the role that the individual manager has to play in all this, covering work/life balance when your team is operating in multiple time zones.

It also makes the point that EQ is not enough and intelligence is a pre-requisite for managing a complex, dispersed team. That’s particularly interesting for me as I think project management as a discipline relies too heavily on templates and process, without engaging with EQ sufficiently.

As with everything, it’s a balance.

The ten strategies for managing in a flat world are discussed in detail in the final chapter, but in summary they are:

  1. Have an empowered and inspirational leadership style
  2. Manage flat structures
  3. Recruit the right people
  4. Show the way
  5. Communicate often and well
  6. Acknowledge that teams ‘don’t just happen’
  7. Build trust
  8. Respect cultural differences
  9. Accept that work/life balance is a blessing and the curse of the flat world
  10. Become part of the human internet.

There is a lot of stuff in this book, all of which will make you a better manager, even if your teams aren’t spread across continents. The biggest take-away message for me, though, was this:

If a dispersed team is not communicating well, it may not be because of the dispersal… Some team members are not on speaking terms with one another even though they are all in the same open-plan office. Their communication, and possibly their relationships, might actually be improved if they were on opposite sides of the world.

People not getting on isn’t always a sign that distance is the problem – have a look at some other fundamentals of the interpersonal relationships and work through those before writing off the difficulties as just a side-effect of working with an international team.

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This article first appeared on this website in 2009, so it’s an old book but still a useful one in many respects. Some sections are a bit dated now given improvements in communication technology.

This article first appeared at Rebel’s Guide to Project Management

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