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Management by "Walkabout"

Management by walkabout, or MBWA for those addicted to acronyms, describes a face to face approach to management. I have encased the word walkabout in quotes because the dictionary still refers to a walkabout as either an aboriginal term (as in he went walkabout), or as an activity by the Royal family of England. This article deals with the term as it is used in management and in particular, project management.

Tom Peters claims that management by walkabout is the key to organizational excellence in his book, In Pursuit of Excellence. I would hesitate to make that claim in the realm of project management but do agree that it is an essential component of the project manager's communication strategy. It is perhaps somewhat less critical in today's projects than it was a generation ago due to the increased geographical diversity of project teams; it is difficult to practice manage by walkabout when you are located in New York City and the team is located in Mumbai. There are some alternatives that can be used effectively and I'll get to those at the end of this article.

A key advantage of management by walkabout, as opposed to other forms of communication with your team, is your ability to demonstrate your leadership to the team. Leaders of high performance teams, whether in the area of sports, business, or war, have all been viewed as approachable by the team and it is this aura of approachability that establishes the leader as someone the team looks to for direction. In the case of leaders like George Patton, Vince Lombardi, and others, the benefits extend even further: their teams performed physical feats that lesser leaders could not command. Note that the size of the team does not negatively impact the effectiveness of the lead: Vince Lombardi led a professional football team of approximately 50 players while George Patton led an entire army (80,000 - 200,000 soldiers). Their methods suited the size of their teams but each managed to create that aura of approachability. The key point here is that management by walkabout is a key component of good leadership and good leadership is key to creating high performance teams.

One remarkable project manager, Frank Crowe who managed the Hoover/Boulder Dam project, coined a phrase: "Never belly to desk". While he didn't take his own advice literally (and neither should you), he did succeed in delivering that rather difficult project ahead of schedule and under budget due in large part to his walkabout management style.

Other advantages of management by walkabout are:

  • Unfiltered communication (most people will be inhibited speaking in front of a group)
  • The ability to ask follow-up questions
  • The ability to access information when you need it
  • The ability to identify problems that impede progress as they happen
  • Privacy (some team members may be inhibited from identifying a problem in front of the team)

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the technique, it's easy to initiate, especially for those who chose the project management discipline because they enjoy contact with people. You can begin the process by taking time at the beginning of the project to visit each member of the team, getting their take on the challenges the project will face, the challenges they will face in their tasks, and any problems they foresee which could impede their progress. Don't attempt to visit the entire team in one tour, it won't be possible even for a small team; some team members won't be available to you and management by walkabout doesn't lend itself to formalizing your meetings with a schedule. I find that taking time out from an administrative task that has become boring (e.g. updating MS Project) to visit a few of the team not only alleviates my boredom but is now a recognized management style!

Project managers with large teams may not be able to visit all their team members at regular intervals (George Patton didn't have a lot of time to spend with each of his 100,000+ soldiers), so have to be more selective with their visits. Identify the key or critical team members on your team and include them on your walkabouts. Key members could include subordinate project managers, team leads, supervisors, foremen, and individuals with unique skill sets which are critical to the project. You can make up for the lack of one-on-one contact with the entire team by putting yourself in front of the sub-teams on your project at opportunities such as status review meetings. Take a few minutes after these meetings to make yourself available to any individuals who want to speak with you. You can also address the entire team at kick-off meetings and "town halls".

The One-on-one

Although all conversations involve talking and listening, your key purpose at the one-on-ones you perform during your walkabouts is to elicit information from the team member. In order to do this effectively you must be able to provide an atmosphere that encourages the team member to speak freely and you must have good listening skills. Establishing the right atmosphere means encouraging the team member to open up to you and communicate freely. Listening skills are not something you'll pick up overnight but I will try to provide you with some useful pointers, so read on.

Establishing the right atmosphere in your one-on-one walkabout meetings can be done by ensuring that you don't "shoot the messenger". In other words, do not respond negatively to any bad news that the team member may communicate. Another tip is to make sure that you identify solutions to overcome problems that the team member informs you of and then communicating your progress in implementing the solutions. Another trick to creating a positive atmosphere is to talk to the team member on the same physical level. If they are seated at their desk, pull up a chair to chat with them. If they are standing then you should be standing also. Don't invade their personal space. You should always maintain a distance of at least 3 feet between yourself and the team member.

Your listening skills will improve as you get to know each of the team members you are communicating with and understand the communication style they are most comfortable with. The Center for Educational Development and Assessment (CEDA) offers a useful table which they got from GST Telecom. The information is available from their website at: http://www.cedanet.com/meta/communication_styles.htm. The table divides people into 4 categories: Expressers, Drivers, Relaters, and Analytical. I would not advise being rigid in your application of this model on every member of your team (they are all individuals after all) but analyzing their traits in an attempt to assign them to one of these categories will focus you on observing their behaviour which will be helpful. Expressers will tend to get enthusiastic about positive news and agitated about negatives. When talking about something they are affected by they will tend to become animated or excited. Drivers are people who enjoy getting their own way. They tend to see things in black and white, without grays. Drivers will tend speak in absolutes and demonstrate their views are the right ones. Relaters are folks who see themselves as part of a team. The team is important to them in terms of the project and family, friends, and social activities are important to them. These folks like to be appreciated and will enjoy relating to you on a personal level. Analytical people don't like dealing in generalities. They much prefer to deal in facts and figures. Giving these people details in your conversation will be helpful.

Keep in mind that people may exhibit traits from 2 categories or more. People who are Expressers may also display Relater traits and people who are Drivers may also display Analytical traits. Try to determine whether your team member exhibits Relater traits or Analytical traits. People who are Relaters will appreciate your taking an interest in them personally. Begin your conversation with questions about their family; you'll always have conversational ammunition with this person because they will share information about their spouse, or children, or favourite sports team, etc. Let this person bring you up to speed on the people or things outside the project that interest them before turning the conversation to the project and their tasks. Do not waste time on small talk with Drivers/Analytical folks. They will appreciate getting straight to the purpose of your visit and focusing on their issues. You can spot these people because they don't tend to take part in the "water cooler" conversations and when they speak at meetings they will focus on facts and details, rather than abstracts. This person will appreciate your limiting the time you speak with them and communicating facts and details rather than concepts and generalities.

Now that you have established an open atmosphere, identified the right communications approach, and gotten any "small talk" out of the way, it's time to gather information. Asking focused, specific questions should yield information on any areas where you suspect issues. Ask open ended questions to get at hidden issues. An example of an open ended question might be "Are there any other issues you are aware of that we haven't addressed yet?" You will notice that your Driver/Analytical folks tend to respond to open ended questions with focused answers while Expressers/Relaters will tend to respond with general answers. You may need to ask follow-up questions to get the details you need to identify the issue and formulate a solution.

Your body language should demonstrate that you are paying attention to your speaker and focusing on their response. Make eye contact during the conversation and respond at appropriate times. Your responses might be a nod or shake of the head, one word answers such as "yes" or "no", or complete sentences. If you respond in a complete sentence, make the sentence as short as possible. Ask questions or paraphrase to ensure complete understanding. An example of paraphrasing might start with "I understand you to say that....." Continue the conversation until you have all the details you need to deal with the issue. Of course, only a minority of these conversations will reveal unknown issues, the majority will verify that the team mates task is proceeding on schedule and that there are no issues impacting performance. Whether or not the conversation identified a new issue or not, make sure that you leave the team member feeling good about the conversation. If everything is going well congratulate them and thank them for the efforts. If a problem has been identified, thank them for their help in identifying the problem and congratulate them on that part of their work which has gone well. End by outlining how you intend to approach a solution to their problem.

Problems you identify in this way may affect others on the team. When this is the case, you should check with the team member who identified the problem to you before involving others who are affected. Get their commitment to sharing their information. Sharing information that could help others may seem like a no brainer to you but ensuring privacy is one of the advantages of these one-on-one conversations and should not be taken for granted. 99% of the time the answer will be "No, I don't have a problem with that". The 1% of the time that your team member does have a problem, find out what that problem is and seek ways to solve it such that the rest of the team benefits from the information without compromising the confidentiality of the conversation.

The identification of problems should always lead to solutions which eliminate the problem altogether, or at least reduce the negative impact. Keep your team informed during the identification and implementation of your solutions. You should also follow up to ensure that the solution is effective in eliminating the problem. All the problems identified will not be technical ones. The problems that prove to be the most difficult to solve will be interpersonal ones which require conflict resolution skills to solve. I'm not going to get into conflict resolution here, I mention these problems simply to prepare you for the eventuality of encountering them.

I promised that I would offer some tips to help project managers in charge of geographically dispersed projects implement walkabout management, so here they are:

  • Try to visit distant work sites as often as possible. Travel and accommodation cost money so you'll have to combine your walkabout management with other objectives that warrant visits.
  • Use audio/video aids to facilitate a "pseudo face-to-face". These aids are normally used for conducting meetings with whole teams or sub-teams but your project may have the budget to use the facilities for a series of one-on-ones. This approach does eliminate any spontaneity from your walkabout but this can't be avoided. The video portion of the aid will enhance your contact with each team member and make the experience as much like a physical face-to-face as possible.
  • Use the phone. Your budget should cover unlimited phone contact with the members of your team. Make the phone calls as much like the face-to-face meetings you conduct with co-located team members as possible. Always ask your team member if they have a few minutes to chat before beginning. Since visible cues are lost over the phone, all your active listening signals will have to be verbal.
  • Use e-mails or text messages as a last resort. These tools really have no place in walkabout management because they yield none of the benefits of the face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) meetings but are better at establishing personal contact than doing nothing.