Management by walking around
By Adil Wali , 24th Feb 2011

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!

About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.