Management By Wondering Around

Wander With Wonder

MBWA. You’ve probably heard of it: management by wandering (or walking) around. Peters and Waterman made the phrase famous in their 1982 book “In Search of Excellence.”

At the time, I was a store manager at Kinko’s (no longer around after FedEx bought the company) and went on to be responsible for hundreds of stores. Our culture was all about MBWA. In fact, I took it to a new height and changed it to MBFA — management by flying around, because I was a pilot and able to hit many states in a week.

Our founder (Paul Orfalea, nicknamed “Kinko”) and most of us in the executive ranks spent much of our time visiting stores — not often telling people what to do but listening and trying to spread good ideas.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal identifies some research that questions the effectiveness of management by wondering around. It caused me to dig into a bunch of other research and reflect upon what I learned from doing it for many years.

Here’s my take. If, while walking around, you “add value” by lots of problem-solving and telling people what to do, you’ll just waste their time. If, however, you spend your time asking good questions and actively listening, you’ll not only learn everything that the multiple management layers between you and the front line have been trying to soft-pedal, but you’ll also get some real insight into how you’re leading.

If you approach your visits with wonder rather than certainty, you’ll learn so much more. Will you see broken things? Of course! But coach your middle managers; don’t fix them yourself. If you feel compelled to weigh in, try something such as, “… you know, I saw something similar in a store in Omaha, and here’s how they dealt with that.” Less offensive and more effective.

Wondering around can be disorienting, because so many people appear to want to talk with you and listen to your wisdom. Don’t fall for it. Positional authority (e.g., CEO) doesn’t make you smarter than they are, and most of them know their jobs better than you do. Just listen. And when what you hear is critical of you or your decisions, just say thank you.

Go ahead and wander, but do it with wonder, not certainty.

Do you wander around? Is it working? Let me know. I’d love to hear from you.