Scaling MBWA

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post that pointed out 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 through 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?

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6 Responses to Scaling MBWA

  1. Michael April 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    As with many other executives in the technology industry it would seem we need a definition of what ‘managing’ actually is vs just how to do it. Does it not seem that communication has become a huge piece of managing or was it always that?

    — For all employees regardless of location why not consider how better to communicate since everyone ‘receives’ more and more information these days from internal channels (portals, wikis, calls, proj work), external, official (boss said it on a call), unofficial (your friend in another dept sent it to you), informal (you got copied on it), formal (like newsletters), social media, articles, etc. These allow even the most non-motivated person be more informed than that person might have been years ago. the mgmt people need is to sift through that information to help determine what is relevant to make individuals better employees for themselves and for the company.

    And in that lesson of communication differentiate between virtual employees, employees in another office and employees in the same physical location because MBWA is different for those persons. You can’t employ the same communication and mgmt methods because 1) they will expect different styles and 2) they become dependent on those styles regardless of the ‘manager’. Your in-person employees expect to see you more often as I assume the person in your blog post intends from his email. Have more coffee breaks or an open breakfast (every 3rd wed for example) with those in the office. have a topic to pick brains on. employees can be that for you and also ask you questions. For your virtual employees do the same but with an open call on a regular basis. Take notes and send them back out to everyone after those mtgs to demonstrate you paid attention to the employees’ thoughts, concerns and ‘yes’ even the positives.
    For all employees read their social media updates. it would certainly become more informative about their style, interests and what you could even use to guide them toward developing. for you perhaps your company has something internal you can use to open up the conversation electronically but supplement with in-person mtgs where possible.

    Scaling MBWA seems the wrong word here. Perhaps just rethink the purpose of MBWA. I doubt you have time to watch TV but you should catch the highlights of the show Undercover Boss. Seems many companies are noticing how ‘far away’ they are from workers at their respective companies.

  2. Oski April 14, 2010 at 9:56 am #

    The honest truth is we do what is important to us. If MBWA is important to you then you will find time to do it (maybe by doing less of something else or forcing a change in your environment to allow for it).

    I find it really hard to buy the excuse that there is not enough time to do something we claim is important. Each day, week, month or quarter, we do all sorts of amazing things in the pursuit of our business (fly thousands of miles, sit in countless meetings, create hundreds of slides, pull all-nighters to get prepared for customer meetings, etc) and I see the time allocated to each activity as a personal vote on what we have decided (rightly or wrongly) is important. If you are not doing it, it is because you truly believe it is less important than all the other stuff

  3. Jonathan April 14, 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    Oski, I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t have the time but rather than my old style of MBWA doesn’t scale for the larger and more distributed job I have today. The vast majority of my team is in another country so I can’t really “walk” to see them. But I still want the interaction. Thus my suggestions in the post.

    • Oski April 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm #


      I actually meant that comment as a reply to your direct report’s statement that he was too overloaded to stay in touch.

      As regarding your request for ideas, I suggest finding as many opportunities as possible to be exposed to the experience of the people your business touches. The examples you give are right on the money (call your own support line, use your companies products, etc).

      However, there are limitations to this technique. For example, you could never experience the buying process of your company from the perspective of a customer. To get that viewpoint, you have to talk to customers and ask them about their experience.

      As executives, we are all pretty busy but the great thing is we are rarely working alone. Each time you’re with someone (partner, customer, employee), try to form the habit of asking one or two questions that could give you some insight into how your company affects them. I think the accumulation of each of these little tidbits will ensure you have a good sense of what is truly going on.

      Of course, if all else fails, you can sign up for Undercover Boss (

  4. Lui Sieh August 11, 2010 at 7:12 am #

    I try to use more coaching/mentoring sessions. This is part of a structured employee review process which I simply extended.

    I think that part of the MWBA effectiveness is the two-way communications inherent in this style. So, as part of this extension, I schedule these face times over coffee, lunch, piggy-backed over formal meetings, or even pulling up a chair in the other persons cubicle — making sure that I’m out of my environment and in the other person(s), team, dept environment.

    MWBA is really incorporating accessibility and authenticity of a person. It’s a style not for every manager. But one thing to remember is that it’s about the other person, not about yourself as the manager or the boss. Once you have got this down, then you realize that your own behaviors will change and help with doing MBWA.


  5. David Manaster April 20, 2011 at 3:34 am #

    I only manage a small team of about a dozen, but I find that instant messenger is invaluable, especially since traditional MBWA is impossible because my team is remote.

    The IM conversations tend to be informal, which helps for quick, frank communication. If there isa need for a more engaged conversation, we pick up the phobe or use Skype.

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