Management by Wandering Around.

Different managers have different styles of management. Naturally, management also evolves over time as more industries embrace flexible work options and leaders adjust to changing demographics and industry approaches. 

One management approach that has gained popularity with more innovative contemporary firms is MBWA — Management by Wandering Around. 

While “wandering around” gives the impression of an aimless walk through the office, MBWA is in fact a very deliberate strategy that enables managers to remain close to their employees and learn about progress, ideas, and concerns directly. 

The concept, in reality, is as simple as much as it is misunderstood. 

Manager vs. Good Manager.

To start with, what does a manager do, and what makes a good manager? 

In simple terms, managers manage people (obviously). They achieve goals through other people by effectively consolidating the efforts of all the relevant parties. 

Management can be broken down into three key managerial activities: 

  1. Make Decisions.
  2. Allocate Resources.
  3. Supervise Work.

Being a manager also means constantly dealing with humans, who can be anywhere from very reliable to extremely unpredictable. So what truly distinguishes a good manager from a bad one is their ability to achieve goals through other people — even if they are imperfect humans. 

Why do Companies Need Managers?

As a rule, companies typically consist of multiple people with diverse skill sets, and one or more shared goals to achieve. These individuals need management in order to work in sync. 

Simply, managers are important because organizations work better when they are managed. 

No person can reach an organizational objective on their own (unless your organization is tiny, and even then, two heads are better than one). Management helps companies and their employees achieve goals that they otherwise could not complete by themselves.  

Unfortunately, bad managers or management teams still exist in both corporations and start-ups, so management often has negative connotations (sometimes for a good reason). This is why investing time, effort, and resources into good management training is often more valuable than you would think.

In smaller organizations, everyone knows what needs to be done and is usually clear about their individual responsibilities. However, as a company begins to expand, it gets increasingly harder for each individual to see the bigger picture and how their work relates to the work of others to achieve the collective goals of the company. It then becomes necessary for someone to take full responsibility for ensuring that tasks and projects are done efficiently and effectively. 

Having a proper management structure and competent managers ensures that team members are supported as much as possible: they can focus on doing their job to the best of their ability, and hopefully learning and growing along the way. 

So, the reason why companies need managers is to provide stability to teams doing the work and a safety net so that individuals don’t have to worry about matters unrelated to them. Good management is about taking care of the day-to-day workflows of the company: ensuring that things are running smoothly and building effective systems and processes to reduce unnecessary complexity.

Managers as Wanderers.

A good manager is not always one who commits to being in their office day in and day out. On the contrary — sometimes they need to get out and explore. 

Management by Wandering Around (MBWA) is a hands-on approach that involves literally walking around the office to get to know your team and the work they do more closely. First introduced by IT company Hewlett-Packard (HP) in the 1970s, it soon became a favored management style among the likes of Steve Jobs and major companies like Walmart and Disney. 

MBWA allows managers to engage and closely communicate with their teams. From the teams’ perspective, it fosters a better connection with their leaders by making the manager appear more human — and more approachable. This is because MBWA opposes the typical perception of a manager as a distant figurehead to whom each employee reports to.

Instead, it aims to create a nurturing environment for raising concerns and making suggestions for improvement — directly with management. This is achieved through practicing participation, informality, and open-mindedness, and requires a range of skills from active listening to observation and appraisal. 

With this in mind, MBWA highlights three main qualities: 

  • Authenticity. The goal is to build real connections with real people — so just like in any relationship, giving an impression of disinterest or rushing through conversations will easily appear insincere to your team. Instead, managers need to show genuine interest, be able to listen, and offer helpful responses.   
  • Inclusiveness. MBWA is not only about talking to direct peers. In larger companies, managers should aim to visit indirect colleagues as well to learn about (and from) them. In both cases, managers should show consistency and commitment — a true indicator of their interest in all team members as people, not just employees.  
  • Engagement. As a hands-on management approach, MBWA highlights active engagement with team members: asking questions, listening, and encouraging discussions. The importance of expressing praise and appreciation cannot be understated as well: managers should be mindful of their teams’ meaningful work and efforts, and make them feel valued.

How to MBWA.

In the modern corporate environment, close encounters between senior management executives and junior employees are rare. It’s one of the barriers that MBWA aims to overcome by getting managers out of their offices and in closer contact with their teams.

MBWA also aims to build trust between managers and employees, often making the work environment more friendly and less tense. This could reduce stress among team members while increasing motivation — particularly if individuals feel valued and appreciated. 

For managers, MBWA helps to expand their understanding of company operations and culture, which, in turn, can lead to organizational improvement. Connecting with employees may also highlight new business and industry knowledge, commercial awareness, and even growth opportunities. 

Here are a few tips for practicing MBWA and harnessing its benefits to enhance your organization:  

  1. Be genuine, non-judgmental, and inclusive. Always show up with an open mind and be receptive to feedback.
  2. Actively start conversations — and actively listen. Better yet, listen more than you talk. 
  3. Observe team members in action as they do their work. Look for things being done right, share the good news, and praise team members for their achievements. 
  4. Create a safe environment and encourage team members to voice problems and concerns. Then, invite them to offer ideas for improvement.
  5. Cultivate informal interactions. Touch upon personal topics: family, friends, and hobbies (to an appropriate extent). 
  6. Look for ways to build closer connections within the team. This can be through planned group activities or even simply having lunch together.

MBWA might seem unrealistic for some workplaces, as it does have a number of challenges. 

It could be time-consuming for a manager to interact with all of their team members every day, especially in larger corporations. Individuals might also feel like they are under a microscope, which could inadvertently influence their decisions. And finally, if the team does not collectively commit to communicating openly and consistently, it could create roadblocks for their leader, too. 

To overcome these issues, it’s important for managers to plan and implement an intentional strategy: otherwise, MBWA can turn into either aimless wandering around or intense micromanagement.

Wandering Around a Remote Office.

In today’s working environment, communication is easily done (and often preferred) via email or conference calls, breaking geographical and time barriers for teams — yet it is not really aligned with the “wandering around” aspect of MBWA. 

At its heart, MBWA has the element of actually being there in person. But for workplaces that are increasingly digital and spread across the world, it can still be achieved by connecting directly with team members via other channels. When implemented correctly, digital-based companies can benefit from MBWA as much as before, if not more — even if the entire workforce is remote. As this article puts it,

 “Management by walking around virtually, if you will.” 

Managers can get creative with communicating internally. Platforms like Skype and Zoom help enable group calls that aren’t limited to work meetings: think informal team updates, fun virtual activities during work breaks, and engaging discussions. Effective communication practices between leaders and their teams will also help managers to observe and listen to what is actually going on across departments. 

It’s also imperative not to rely solely on virtual interactions (if possible). To develop trust and discuss sensitive topics, face-to-face communication is preferred — even if it’s via video call. Virtual meetings where participants see each other are more effective than texting and audio calls: they enhance individuals’ ability to show understanding and emotion, anticipate others’ responses, observe and express nonverbal cues, and generally communicate better. 

Note, however, that a comfortable balance should be maintained to ensure that team members can still work in their preferred style, set boundaries, and not feel pressured to participate in activities. 

Final Thoughts.

At a time of increasing competition and rapid change, effective management is an indispensable ingredient for organizational success — and so contemporary companies seek innovative solutions to enhance the roles of managers.

In modern workplaces, the teams that keep companies running are more likely to thrive with less-controlling managers that emphasize communication and trust. This means management that regularly catches up with the people who make things happen in the company, listens to their concerns and suggestions, and recognizes their achievements. 

Management by wandering around is exactly that — a unique approach that aims to bring managers closer to team members rather than stifling them. 

MBWA poses both benefits and challenges, and it may fit some company cultures more than others; either way, it takes time and practice to get it right. For best results, managers need to come up with a well-thought-out, deliberate plan, and commit to it. 

MBWA can be implemented even in companies that work remotely — which is occurring increasingly more often in the current business landscape. This simply requires some strategic adjustments and managers’ willingness to keep in touch with their team, being ready to advise and assist them whenever issues arise.

The key to successful MBWA can be summed up in two words: communication + strategy.

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