Management by Wandering Around (MBWA)
Keeping Your Finger on the Pulse
You may be based in the same building as your manager, but how often do you see them?
OK, so maybe you see them any time you look through the spotless glass walls of their office, but how often do you get the chance to sit down together and really talk? Once a week? Once a month? Less, maybe.
A manager like this can seem distant, unapproachable and even intimidating. And yet, it is possible to be a manager who is admired for being wise and knowledgable, and at the same time engaged and connected with the people around them. Which would you prefer to be?
If you build a wall around yourself as a manager, your team members won't gain from your knowledge and you won't gain from their experience. Worse still, you'll be unable to spot and deal with problems before they become serious, and you'll miss out on the key, tacit information that you need to make good decisions.
How often do you get up from your desk and speak to your team members?
Connecting with your team is a major factor in success, and this article shows you how to keep in touch with what's going on.
One powerful way to connect with your team members is to get up from your desk and go talk to them, to work with them, to ask questions, and to help when needed. This practice is called Management by Wandering Around, or MBWA.
MBWA might imply an aimless meander around the office, but it's a deliberate and genuine strategy for staying abreast of people's work, interests and ideas. It requires a range of skills, including active listening, observation, recognition, and appraisal.
MBWA also brings participation, spontaneity and informality to the idea of open-door management. It takes managers into their teams' workplaces to engage with the people and processes that keep companies running, to listen to ideas, to collect information, and to resolve problems.
William Hewlett and David Packard, founders of Hewlett Packard (HP), famously used this approach. Tom Peters included lessons learned from HP in his 1982 book, In Search of Excellence, and MBWA immediately became popular. Now, for example, Disney leaders work shifts with their resort teams, and the CEO of waste management firm Veolia sometimes goes out with his staff when they collect trash.
What MBWA Can Achieve
MBWA can produce a huge range of results. It can, for example, help you to be more approachable. People are often reluctant to speak with their managers because they feel intimidated or they think that they won't care. But when your team members see you as a person as well as a manager they'll trust you and be more willing to share ideas and pain points with you.
Frequent, natural and trusting communication can be infectious, and it encourages people to work together as a team. With better communication and an improved sense of what's happening in your team, you'll likely spot big problems before they happen, and you'll be in a better position to coach your team to avoid them.
Business knowledge, commercial awareness and problem-solving opportunities can all take leaps forward when you better connect with your "front line." You'll improve your understanding of the functions, people and processes at work there, and you'll boost people's company and industry knowledge. Everyone is better equipped to perform their roles when they have the right information, and they are energized by an improved flow of ideas.
Morale will likely get a lift from MBWA, too. Casual exchanges and opportunities to be heard really do help people to feel more motivated, more inspired, and more connected. Furthermore, you'll boost accountability and productivity, as any actions that you agree upon with your people will likely get done because you see one another regularly.
Dangers to Avoid
"Wandering around" may seem easy to do and harmless enough, but it's important to do it right. Research has shown that simply being physically present with your people isn't enough. It's the post-walk actions that you take and the problems that you solve that will determine the success of your MBWA strategy. If you don't strike the right balance, you can wind up doing more harm than good.
Don't, for example, do MBWA just because you feel obliged to – this probably won't work very well. You must truly want to get to know your staff and operations, and you have to commit to following up on people's concerns and to seeking continuous improvement.
A big benefit of MBWA is that people can be open with you, but, if you "shut down" when you hear a negative comment or fail to follow up when you promise to do so, they might perceive you as defensive or as someone who doesn't keep his word.
Gauging the level of trust within your environment is important because, if people don't trust you, MBWA could make them think that you're interfering or spying. It's also important to consider your team members' preferences and to tailor your approach to these. For example, one team member may be happy for you to offer suggestions for improvements within earshot of co-workers, but another might be embarrassed by it, or even get angry about it.
How to Manage by Wandering Around
The biggest challenge when implementing MBWA is to overcome the habit of being "too busy," and to start walking around. These tips can help you to get going.
People will sense your casualness and they'll respond accordingly. Stiff discussions held in formal spaces will lead to rigid responses, so keep your team members at ease with relaxed and unstructured conversations. Hold these where people will likely feel relaxed, such as at their desks or in a neutral place, rather than in your office.
Listen and observe more than you talk
Take care to sound inquisitive rather than intrusive. You can ask your people what they're working on, how comfortable they feel doing their jobs, what they find difficult, whether they see how their work contributes to "the big picture," and so on. Ask them for ideas about how to make things better.
Hold back from saying what you think, and listen actively to your team members' replies. Give them your undivided attention. When they see that you're interested in what they have to say, they'll likely be more open and receptive, and you'll build rapport.
When you talk, be open and truthful. If you don't know the answer to someone's question, find it out afterward and follow up. If you can't share something, say so. Telling half-truths can break down trust, and trust is crucial for successful MBWA.
To take it a step further, consider trying out your team members' work, to experience what they experience and to understand the issues that they face.
Don't favor one department or team more than another, or people may feel left out. Instead, spread your attention evenly. Anyone can have great ideas or need support, so talk to everybody, regardless of their job title or position. If people work remotely, make the effort to get in touch with them. If they work the night shift, stay late to talk to them.
Recognize good work
Always look for successes rather than failures and, if you see something good, compliment the person. This is an effective and simple way to show your gratitude and to boost morale.
Spread the word
Share good news and reinstill company goals, values and vision within your team. Tell people how your aims for the team fit with the big picture. Your "wanderings" are opportunities to share information that helps everyone to understand and do their jobs better.
Effective organizations aren't all about work. MBWA allows you to strike a balance between people's work and their personal lives, and to enjoy the lighter side of your job. Enjoying a joke or two, chatting with team members about their hobbies, and finding out their kids' names helps to build relationships.
You don't need to befriend them on Facebook or shoot pool together after work, but you may be surprised by how great it feels to relate with your colleagues on a personal level.
Don't overdo it
Don't leave people feeling that you're always looking over their shoulder! Wander around often enough to get a good feel for what's going on – to make it a key part of your management strategy – but not so often that your presence feels like a distraction. Try not to do it at the same time each day: be spontaneous and unplanned, frequent but random.
Review your conversations
Your presence alone isn't enough to impact frontline staff performance. Be sure to review the things that you've learned – both the good and the bad – and take action accordingly.
Management by Wandering Around can be an effective and practical way to keep up with what's happening within your team and your organization.
Make the effort to reach out and build relationships with your people. This can pay off significantly with the information that you'll gather and the trust that you'll build. A team spirit can naturally develop when you show a genuine interest in your people and their work. It's also a great way to keep the company's vision alive. It's easy and economical, and can be a lot of fun!
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