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The Periodic Polemic

Polemic for 22 August 2000

on Management by Walking Around...

I was amazed to see a post on a project management list today that there is a company that actually has a policy for its managers to not get up and walk around to check on how things are going. That is ludicrous! How can you properly manage by not moving among your employees, be it physically or electronically? How can you run things without the sort of information you can gather by getting up and collecting on your own from the people who work for you?

Alexander the great managed his forces not only by walking around, but by riding into the thick of battle. He shared the hardships of his men. His troops loved him for his leadership. Had he been a general that hung back in the tents, one doubts he would have gotten further than a few cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Granted, not everyone is the next Alexander the Great, but not everyone faces the same challenges he did in conquering the known world. Certainly, where life isn't in danger, an executive or top manager can stroll around and see how the people are doing.

In the Shakespeare play, Henry V, King Henry goes out among his men on the eve of battle to see if they are prepared and willing to fight. The men do not recognize him and speak frankly to him. He does not punish any man for what he says, so that he can continue gathering his information. He returns to his tent knowing that his men are indeed ready for the fight, setting his own mind in the proper frame to lead them in the battle to come. While the manager/executive can't necessarily move around like Henry V, he can at least be there, among his employees, listening to what they have to say.

What benefits does that net the manager who does this? At the very least, it has a cop on the beat effect: people are less likely to engage in extreme goofing off if they know the boss can stroll by at any minute. Depending on the nature of the visit, it can have a positive effect on morale. Ask for a status report. State expectations. Ask for any concerns, and discuss them to some degree. This is proper involvement and knowledge-gathering.

Do not begin to involve yourself in technical details. Do not inspect work in progress (unless you want to have a confrontation about playing solitaire on company time right then and there and potentially humiliate your employee in front of everyone else, which is never a good idea) unless the employee offers to show you current work or the nature of the project is urgent. Do not criticize overmuch. Do not micromanage. Do not waste time.

Think back to school: If a teacher sat at his desk and buried his head in a newspaper or stack of papers to grade, you could get away with so much more mischief than if he was walking around, checking over your shoulder periodically. You could still goof off, but it had to be in and around getting work done so as to avoid capture.

If, on the other hand, you were more studious, the teacher in the fortress of paper was so much less approachable and available than the teacher in the neighborhood of desks and chairs.

Get up and walk around, people!

Dean Webb

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