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Leading Teams in a Flat World - Part 1

I recently received an invite for a webinar entitled “Managing People and Projects in a Flat World” that occurs next week. I’m not keen on the term “managing people” as I believe “We manage property and lead people. If you try to manage people they feel like property.” However the general topic is interesting and so I thought a more appropriate theme for a post might be “Leading Teams in a Flat World

First, we should define what a “Flat World” is. The term comes from the best selling book “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas L. Friedman. In the book Friedman builds a compelling argument for an impending globalization we are just beginning to witness. Many factors are acting as “flatteners” to bring about competition and collaboration from around the world in traditional and emerging markets. These factors include widespread broadband access, open source software, outsourcing, and a proliferation of highly educated engineers in India, China, and Eastern Europe. Friedman asserts that in the future organizations who can embrace these changes will prosper while those who ignore them do so at their peril.

So, abilities to lead teams in a flat world will likely become vital skills. Given the challenges and opportunities for effective teamwork and collaboration what recommendations can we offer for geographically dispersed, multi-cultural teams?

1. Leverage available technology – Since a major world flattener is the advent of technologies that allow remote collaboration, it makes sense to use them wherever we can to improve communications. Geographically dispersed teams should investigate and leverage video conferencing, team collaboration web sites and wiki’s, instant messaging, and the plethora of emerging VOIP communication tools. Look for a selection of tools that fit your team’s work style, many young workers like the immediacy and conversational style of instant messaging, whereas some more traditional workers may prefer the audit trail and structure of email or threaded discussion forums.

2. Spend 80% of your travel budget up front – remote communication via telephone, email, or IRC is much easier and more effective once you have met the people face-to-face and had a chance to work together. To facilitate effective communications between key stakeholders try to bring the whole team together at the start of the project. Consuming the bulk of a project’s travel budget upfront will pay dividends in improved remote communications for the remainder of the project.

3. Spend more effort on the project Vision – given the different backgrounds and problems of picking up on confused expressions remotely, it is important to make sure the project Vision is clearly articulated. Avoid overusing sports analogies, they often do not translate well, instead provide a variety of complementary descriptions and make them available on the project web site where they can be pulled on demand.

4. Celebrate differences – Don’t try to enforce standard work practices for everyone, instead focus on the quality of the deliverables and let working norms evolve. Talk to groups about their work practices and ask what works well for them. Celebrate differences via respectful accounts of select working approaches on the project web site or wiki and encourage discussion. Take the time to learn about the work cultures of your diverse team. Meet and chat with people whenever you can to better understand differences and find opportunities for applying alternative approaches.

5. Tolerate conflict – conflict between team members and groups is often a healthy early phenomenon and leaders should resist the initial temptation to quickly smooth out issues. A fear of conflict between team members can be a sign of an absence of a trusting environment where lively discussion and disagreement should be encouraged. Patrick Lencioni advises in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” that teams that lack trust cannot engage in unfiltered debate. Instead they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments. This leads to a lack of commitment as without passionate debate, team members rarely if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings. It is a destructive chain, due to the lack of commitment and buy-in most people will hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviours that seem counterproductive to the good of the team. This failure to hold one another accountable leads to putting individual goals (or department goals) ahead of the project which eventually leads to an inattention to results. Due to the lack of face-to-face communications on dispersed teams it can be harder to detect and intervene on this destructive chain if concerns or debate are stifled early, Instead monitor it carefully, step in if it seems to be spiralling, but when you can let it run its own course, conflict is often a sign of passionate contributors.

6. Ask for improvements and be adaptive to suggestions – Tap into the wisdom-of-crowds within your teams. A key reason why the world is flattening is because new disruptive technologies and work practises are being used to displace traditional models. If you want to avoid being displaced yourself, actively seek out and try new tools and approaches. Having spent time and effort installing and configuring a project web site for the team it can be frustrating to hear suggestions for a different tool. However, to keep the team engaged and gain the benefits of new technology, be ruthless in your pruning of tools and techniques. Ask for suggestions, try new tools alongside others, and adopt the best tools for your group

The world is most definitely flattening, there is little point denying it. The in-demand leaders of the future will be those who learn how to embrace global talent pools and create inclusive, collaborative environments. But, what else is required? I’d like to make this a Top 10 list, please let me know what over recommendations you have for leading teams in a flat world.


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