Flat management: An interview with Susan Bloch & Philip Whiteley

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Recently, I read How to Manage in a Flat World by Susan Bloch & Philip Whiteley. I was interested in the shift to flat structure management and a more cohesive approach to managing dispersed team members, so I spoke with the authors.
What has happened in business to make teams less cohesive?
CEOs know that they must be more fit, leaner, and faster. A flatter structure allows for faster decision making and less time-consuming meetings (virtual and face-to-face). It also encourages adaptability and new ways of doing business. Decisions and discussions in a hierarchical, layered organization must be escalated, discussed, and then cascaded (often with poor communications).
To grow specialization and develop high-skilled workers, it is important to have more partnerships and less hierarchical organizational structures. Managers can be part of many different teams, which may include people from outside consultancies or outsourced contractors.
These developments create a world that is very different from the top-down, “colonial” setups of the last century.
This sounds just like a project team. We project managers often don’t have direct management responsibility over our teams. How does this affect how we connect with dispersed members of our teams?
To ensure teamwork, project management teams must use the same processes.
Clarity of vision and project objective
Understanding each other’s strengths and limitations
Communication and behavior guidelines
Knowing who is responsible for what and when
Recognizing time zones
Understanding cultural differences

As leaders, you must earn trust and respect. This is true in most cases, but it is especially true for a flat team that is geographically dispersed. Multi-media communication is essential to communicate effectively, engage people and accomplish tasks. Nearly all of our interviewees stated that trust is the key to achieving what you want.
You say that teams don’t just happen. So what’s a good place to start building trust and building a team? A team that begins as a group of people gathered in a room to kick-off a project.
The people we spoke to said that a mix of business and personal contact is a good way to create a team. They can work together on vision and practical goals, and then socialize after the formal meeting. This can help to build trust and a sense of shared understanding.
For any organization to continue its success, it is essential that they have good project management skills. Project leaders must be trained in project leadership. This training should cover planning, budgeting and numeracy as well as conceptual thinking.
Communication, clarity, accuracy and accountability are essential skills. It is also important to have interpersonal skills.
It’s easy for all of those things – interpersonal skills and clarity, etc. – to disappear when people use email. Why is email so important? Isn’t it more convenient and more connected to pick-up the phone?
Email is especially useful when working across time zones. Nobody wants to wake up at midnight on their phone. Sometimes it is helpful to clarify the discussion so there are no misunderstandings.
However, the more people who can connect via phone, video conference, or face-to-face …., the better. The more people can connect by phone, video conference or face to face, the better. This is not always possible. It is better to have a little every now and again than nothing.
Personal preferences may dictate the communication methods used. How to Manage in a Flat World, we point out that both different professions and nations have a ‘culture. Software developers are