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Is the world flat or round? Decisions for trainers of virtual teams.

December 2, 2008 Articles, Training No Comments


Every day people have to connect with others whom they may never (or rarely) see face to face. How does the modern organisation cope with these challenges?

Is the world flat or round?

That may seem a silly question. However, up until the 15th century people thought that it was flat – that’s a lot of time to exist with a major misconception. Why did people think that way for so long? Did it matter to them? One cannot say. However, here’s a hypothesis for you.  Pre-Columbus, people (in general) could only travel so far – often this was not even out of sight. They lived in small groups, everyone knowing everyone else and interacting daily. A problem found was a problem shared and solved. Although there were many differences between cultures, hierarchy was perhaps less layered than it was in even 20th century organisations. All of this led to a feeling of “togetherness” and a certainty that they were the only people on this flat piece of earth.


Today in the 21st century, perhaps we have that same feeling of flatness happening once again. Globalisation and enhanced forms of communication, have ensured that people can (and I use that word advisedly) have the same sort of contact as our pre 15th century forebears. Today, organisations operate across multiple countries. This has implications for both people who work together locally and those who work elsewhere, all of whom may work for the same organisation. That means that every day people have to connect with others whom they may never (or rarely) see face to face.

How does the modern organisation cope with these challenges? Many now have matrix structures and internationally based project groups, teams and committees. Being based in Switzerland, the home of some of the larger multinationals, got me thinking on this topic and how the challenge is being faced (Swiss companies include Nestlé, Roche, Novartis, Zurich Insurance, Clariant – in fact there are at least 60 large multinationals head-quartered in Switzerland).

Take the case of one manager that I know of who has nine people reporting to him. All of his people are members of other project teams from time to time. Three of his people are also permanent members of three other teams. Three of his people work in the same office as him, the others are spread around the globe. What are the issues for matrix and virtual teams such as this?

In my discussions with trainers and learning & development people in some of the Swiss multinationals, There seems to be at least four challenges for developing and maintaining virtual and matrix teams:

  • Building
  • Developing real team work
  • Keeping team members motivated
  • Making decisions

Much has been written about the first three, so I thought I’d put forward some thoughts on decision making. Decision making seems to be a major weakness in virtual teams, particularly when the teams are part of a matrix structure.

As one manager who has worked in a matrix organisation for over fifteen years told me, “There is often a built-in uncertainty about who is responsible to decide a certain thing. If anyone thinks that ‘they cannot decide’, then they are probably right.” Following is a summary of the advice he would give to people working in virtual, matrix teams:

  • If you see that a decision is needed and you are very qualified to make it, do so.
  • Act as if it is fully your responsibility to male the decision.
  • Make the decision very publicly and very loudly.
  • Publicise the decision widely, using solid justification to back it up.

As my colleague said “Adopting this approach brings out any counter arguments very quickly, if there are any … and they can be treated with whatever merit they deserve … and quickly the decision becomes accepted and consolidated across the organisation. This then gives many of the ‘matrix uncertainty victims’ a solid basis to continue until the next authority vacuum arrives.”

This is the “if you are not sure whether you can decide or not, give it a try, you will soon find out” approach. It certainly beats “failing due to lack of decision making” which is the matrix disease. It doesn’t always give the smoothest ride as it can bring some conflicts to the fore… but these conflict issues are there anyway and they are much easier to deal with when they are out in the open.

So, for trainers working with virtual teams in a matrix structure, despite the improved forms of communication available, we face a key challenge. How do we create or recreate the face-to-face environment shared by teams of old? An environment that brought immediacy and intimacy; where a problem found was a problem shared and solved. Where process issues such as decision making and conflict management were integral to the team’s daily mode of operating.

© The National Learning Institute

About the Author -

Bob Selden is the author of the best-selling “What To Do When You Become The Boss” – a self-help book for new managers – see details at He’s also coached at one of the world’s premier business schools, the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and regularly advises managers around the globe on their current challenges. Please add your comments to this article or contact Bob via if you would like some free advice on your current management challenge.


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