Before Bill Hewlett and David Packard founded their famous company that seeded what later became Silicon Valley, and inspired much of the work culture associated with high tech, most organizations were run with a closed-door management policy. Information didn’t flow freely, so executives never had an accurate view of the problems facing the company on the front lines, and people in the lower ranks had only limited knowledge of what management was thinking.
HP discovered that the best way of finding out what’s going on is to simply walk around and talk to those in the trenches. At the same time, this practice allowed employees to influence their bosses and ask questions about company strategy. A nice side-effect was that employees felt respected, and were therefore more loyal to HP.
Management By Wandering Around (MBWA) works as follows. The manager makes a conscious effort to go to where the workers are and build relationships through casual conversation, initiating contact at times when there are no outstanding problems. Because there are no current issues, employees aren’t suspicious, and are more likely to open up.
The method has been so successful, it’s used by many top executives. Steve Jobs used MBWA at Apple; and, as a result, he was never a stranger to what was going on at all levels in the company. Ursula Burns uses it at Xerox; and, as a result, she promotes open and frank communication throughout the company.
Some top executives make it a point to have lunch with all employees, eating with a different small group every day and engaging them in small talk to stay abreast of things and to make sure people have a chance to talk with them.
Even if workers are away from the office, it’s a good idea, if possible, for a manager to go to where they are and see what’s going on in their environment. William Payne, CIO of Veolia, a large European waste management company, goes out to where workers collect trash and finds out firsthand how they use technology and what more they might need. It turns out that collecting industrial garbage is made easier by using handhelds and RFID to help identify different types of waste.
MBWA also works for project management—a discipline that usually requires skills at keeping multiple stakeholders in the know. Leaders of NASA’s largest projects regularly report using this method as a way of keeping an ear to the ground and making sure key messages are getting down to all levels of important projects.
But there are still some bosses who think they’re using adequate alternatives to MBWA. Some project managers spend most of their time at their desks, thinking that as long as they have an open-door policy, employees will walk in and fill them in on what they need to know or raise issues as needed. The problem is, only a few people will go into the boss’s office, and they will carefully plan what to say beforehand, so the result is the manager often gets only a skewed view of what’s happening.
Other project managers call employees into their office from time to time to see what’s on their mind. This, too, is a poor substitute to MBWA, because it can be intimidating and usually inhibits free flow of information.
Here are three MBWA tips for project managers:
• Take the initiative and go to where employees are to strike up an informal discussion.
• Make sure you talk to all project members to avoid having somebody feel left out and also to avoid getting a skewed view from just the more outgoing members.
• Wander around regularly, and do so when there’s no particular issue to discuss.
MBWA isn’t a cure-all for managing projects. It’s simply a good way of opening up lines of communication in both directions and making workers feel respected—two things that will come in handy for a project manager when a crisis occurs, or when it becomes crunch time and he or she needs workers to pour it on.