Management by wandering around is not a new concept. Some attributed its invention to Abraham Lincoln, and others to Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s. It has its own Wikipedia article, and who knows how many books written on the subject. Despite all of that, it often fails to yield benefits.
I really enjoy that Wikipedia states for management by wandering around that, “by random sampling of events or employee discussions, (it) is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity and total quality management of the organization.” When was the last time your boss, by popping into your office or the floor space where you are working, suddenly improved your morale and sense of organizational purpose? Instead, I think we typically feel like somebody is trying to look over our shoulder, maybe wondering if are doing something wrong, and if nothing else it’s just distracting.
But there is a way to do this right. All we have to do is something other than just wandering around.
I once read about this fascinating practice in Japanese car companies where, when they’re hiring a manager, the first thing the manager is going to be assigned to do is work on the auto line. They’re going to spend several months in the factory doing the same work as the people who will soon be working for them. Management is a whole different skill set from working on an auto line, and might require advanced education in accountancy, leadership, and business law. But if we don’t know anything about the work that we are managing, we’ll do a terrible job as managers.
Management by wandering around is not intended as a way of inspecting your employees and making sure they’re keeping busy. You should instead couple it with the concept of servant-leadership. As you wander, ask your employees what you can be doing for them, or what they need to be better at their job. Management by wandering around affords the opportunity for less formal conversations about work, and the opportunity to generate new ideas about how we get things done. It gives your employees a one-on-one channel to you where they can share ideas and concerns.
There’s another key to making this work, however, and that is that your employees must trust you enough to share their ideas and concerns. By interacting with your employees on a regular basis, inviting their feedback, and then implementing some of their feedback, you will communicate trust in them, which will in turn help them to trust you.
Ultimately, management by wandering around is less about inspection and more about communication. It is about creating opportunities to see things that you may not otherwise see, and have conversations that won’t come up in a conference room.
Wandering around was a really valuable tool when I was managing staff at the university, but now I work with a distributed team for company based in another country. There are still ways to employ this principle of management by wandering around though.
Just like I had to be deliberate about getting out of my office and walking around to see my staff and connect with them, those of us working remotely have to be equally diligent in initiating communication. The way conversations start will, of necessity, be less casual, but we still need to foster informal chats about what we are doing and how we do it.
So get out there and wander. Whether you are a manager or teammate, connecting with each other and building trust will help all of us to do better work, and we will enjoy the work that we do a whole lot more.