Scaling MBWA

April 13, 2010

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post that pointed out that the benefits of management by walking around can be achieved without actually leaving your desk.  Some examples are as follows:

  • Management can mimic the shopping experience of a prospective customer by visiting a Web site and trying to find/buy a particular product. It’s the modern version of a secret shopper.
  • Executives should try to resolve a specific problem by calling their own customer support line. Immersing themselves in the customer experience can be more informative than dashboards of call center metrics.
  • All bosses must occasionally use the tools that they mandate to their workers, from expense reporting software, to requests for time off, to travel requests.

I still believe in these examples and the ability to manage without walking around but a recent email from a long-time employee jolted my thinking.  In his words:

How does an executive stay in touch with people – actually manage by walking around – when it doesn’t seem you can leave your desk anymore?  You have 10 times more meetings than you had 3 years ago, probably 5 times the staff, and you are considering getting your wife a job as a flight attendant so you can see her more. The work habits of the regular worker have changed too; they are working remotely, and you can’t make house calls – even doctors gave that up. 

You’re still communicating with employees via All Hands, emails, your blog and now twitter but these feel like one-way monologues.  The point of MBWA was always a dialogue between the manager and the employee.

He’s right.  For years, I managed by walking around by actually walking or flying around.  Or by scheduling regular phone calls with key employees. I prided myself on accessibility.  But it hasn’t scaled.

In MBWA style, I asked the employee for some ideas of how to address the problem.  Some resonated with me; others felt forced.  Two ideas have stuck with me which I plan to adopt:

  1. Use video conferencing / telepresence whenever possible as an alternative to conference calls.Many conference calls turn into soliloquies, with one presenter dominating the conversation. I often wonder whether I would have missed anything if I just had listened to a recording afterwards. Seeing the other attendees provides visual clues about confusing material and encourages interaction. 

    I’ve also come to dread the sound of typing that I hear on nearly every conference call; peoples’ attentions are obviously elsewhere.  It’s much harder to multi-task when everyone can see you.

  2. Enforce my long-held belief that I should manage by exception, rather than status.I have more than 20 regularly scheduled 1 on 1’s which range in frequency from weekly to quarterly.   Most employees want to use this time to update me on what they’ve done since we have last talked.  They are suitably proud of their work and want to share their successes with me.

    While I’m usually interested in what’s happened, I’m not really managing and I’m missing a chance to engage in a more substantive dialogue.  I should focus the conversation on exceptional successes or unexpected issues, leaving room for an unstructured conversation that could benefit us both. Another kind of wandering around.

I’m curious what you think about these ideas to help scale management by walking around.  Do you have any others you’d like to share?