Management by walking around

Easily, one of the most fun parts of my job is management by walking around (MBWA).  It’s not just fun, but its also quite effective as a tool in leading organizations.  My experience, however, is that its an underutilized tactic.  And for those of us who do it, its one of the easiest things to ‘bump off the schedule’ for something seemingly more important.

A brief history

“Management by Wandering Around” is a term that was made popular by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, the authors of the 80’s bestseller In Search of Excellence.  The concept was originally developed and touted by Hewlett-Packard executives in the 1970s.  Since HP and In Search of Excellence made the term popular, its been a reoccurring topic in business books over the years.

What is MBWA and why should you do it?

Simply put, Management by Walking Around (I prefer the ‘walking’ to ‘wandering’), is an unstructured approach to interacting with employees in your organization.  The idea is to ‘get out of the office’ and interact with real people doing real work in your organization.  Companies that tout MBWA often push managers to spend more time out of their offices than in their offices, if they can swing it.  The goal is to use these informal visits to listen to how employees are feeling, understand the challenges they face, gather ideas for improvement, and connect on a personal level.

Let me start by saying that I haven’t done any formal research on the topic.  All my experience here is anecdotal, but I feel like it has served me well.  The reason MBWA works is pretty simple: the best decisions are not often made in isolation.  Its really easy, particularly when (you think) you are a smart executive, to make conclusions and solve all the businesses problems without talking to folks.  But the reality is that you get better data, insight, and ideas from talking to people who are actually exposed to the problems you are trying to solve.

Also, as a leader in any organization, its important that you interact with people on a regular basis.  If for no other reason, this is valuable because it enables you to keep a thumb on the pulse of the organization.  When you are in your office the whole day, you don’t often get a sense for what is really going on.  Furthermore, people don’t get to connect with you on a personal level and get to know you.  Another important factor in all this is that people vary widely in their comfort level in talking with leaders and gregariousness.  So, if you are not out there actively seeking out conversations, there is some distinct population of your team that you just aren’t going to hear from.

How do you do MBWA well?

The truth is, I am still working on getting good at this whole MBWA thing.  I’ve learned a thing or two so far, but I certainly have a ways to go.  Here’s what I’ve got:

  • Do everything you can to be consistent with your MBWA time.  Things always come up.  That’s no excuse, though.  Every manager is busy.  Just be disciplined about not giving this time up.
  • Your demeanor matters.  One valid reason to actually cancel MBWA time is if you are upset, angry, or just not in the right mood to walk around and chat with others.  People can read your feelings, and some people don’t get to see you very often.  Don’t leave a lasting impression of uneasiness with them.
  • Don’t be selective.  Try to get out there and actually talk to everyone.  Just talking to some people gives you a skewed sample of the team data.  Also, it makes people feel left out.
  • Ask for suggestions and ideas.  Don’t keep the conversation overly tactical.  It’s not just about you ‘coming by’ to inspect the work they are doing.  Its about learning from them.
  • Chat about ‘life’ too.  You don’t have to keep topics limited to work.  Its important to connect with people on a personal level, too.

I continue to learn more about this tool every day.  I’ll continue to employ it and report back with my results.  I hope it works for you, too!  Please post comments with anything you’ve learned!

8 Responses

  • Stbn // // Reply

    It´s really bad to walk to somebody, start talking as good ‘ole friends and not know their name. Or, to pretend that you are friends with that person, and you can´t really tell one thing about that person´s ‘life’. So, MBWA is also about learing from others, about others.

    • Anonymous // // Reply

      I totally agree. If it’s contrived and not about connecting with other humans, then it is sort of a veiled insult, isn’t it?

  • Khaled Tarawneh // // Reply

    i hope you keep this topic live,glad to share with youpersonal experience about #mbwa

  • tassnim awajan // // Reply

    thanks for sharing your experience with us agree totaly that management by wondering around could be be so usefull ,nice topic

  • Mohammed Tarawneh // // Reply

    Thank you sharing , worthy to try in public sector , actually , tried it , but employees understood as a manner of inspection

    • Melanie // // Reply

      As a public sector employee, I’ve got a lot of experience working under less than stellar management. Usually when someone higher up expresses an interest in anyone outside of management, inspection is usually what it’s about! But as one of those being managed, I can say that it’s nice to know that your boss acknowledges you. (It’s even nicer when they know your name and greet you with it and a smile!) It’ll take some time to get employees used to you being a presence in the workplace. Stick with it! And try to not to do it as a method of checking up. Try to show genuine interest in what your employees have to say, and you may be pleasantly surprised by… dare I say it? An increase in productivity, perhaps?

      Best of luck to you!

  • Guest // // Reply

    Fuck you, you are the biggest hypocrite and liar. You lied off hundred of people who were working for your company for no reason, and what’s worse, you were to coward to kick these people yourself that you preferred to give this job to someone else.

    Don’t trust this person, he’s an imbecile and a coward who will back-stab you when he gets the chance.

  • […] of meetings, I get a lot accomplished with “drive-bys” (see my post Management by walking around). A significant part of my calendar is blocked throughout week. I have a backlog of things I want […]

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