If you want to know what is going on you need to connect with your people.  I’m not talking about the formal one-on-one conversations I’m talking about  MBWA — Management By Wandering Around.

This process was the hallmark of Hewlett Packard explosive growth in the 1980’s and was made famous by Tom Peters in his book “In Search of Excellence”. MBWA is quite simple and can yield amazing intelligence. Here’s how you do it. First, you must get out of your space, physically or virtually and get out where the people are doing the work. If you can be physically there you walk around or observe them doing their work. If this is a virtual visit, schedule 15 minutes and have a video conference.  Google and Skype are examples of two companies that provide free video conferencing.

Then you ask two questions:

  1. How’s it going?
  2. Is there anything I can do to help you?

Let’s look at what answers you might get. To the first question you might get something like “great” or “super”.  The have just engaged their information filtering system because they know from past experience that telling a manager that things are anything but great results in a lot more attention than they want! So you will hear this answer for a while.

The second question will generally result in “Nothing” or “No, not really”. What they are really thinking is “Yes, get out of my space.” Most workers do not believe that managers can help them; at least they do not have experiences with manager that can help. Get used to hearing this response for a while also. But be persistent, keep asking the same questions. Eventually you will hear something besides the standard answers.

Your workers will get together physically or virtually and talk about how weird you are, coming around asking these questions. Finally one of them will figure out something for you to do. It will be simple and you will be able to do it. It may not be in your job description or something you would actually want to do. Maybe it will be something that they should do. But, you will be able to do it! As an example, during a problem-solving session,  you pop in and ask how it is going, they will respond everything is going OK. When you ask if you can do anything for them, they might respond “Yes, you can go get us some donuts” or “Yes, the updated trouble log should be ready by now can you email it to me.”

Now alarms should be going off in your head! This is a test. They are checking to see if you really mean it when you ask if you can help. In this case, immediately find out what kind of donuts they want and go get them or confirm the email address to send the trouble log to and then go do it.  Do not press for any more information. Wish them success and let them know you are available to help. Then leave.

If you passed the test (you went to get the donuts, sent the trouble log), you will now be given more responsibility when you ask if you can help. They will give you successively more important tasks to do for them. And, when you ask “how’s it going?”, you will get much more information than you thought possible. One caveat on how you respond to this information. Always acknowledge the information and thank them for sharing. Do not take any action until you get a response from the “Is there anything I can do to help you?” question. Don’t offer to take action or even make a suggestion on how you can help. If you act without permission, you will get to start over!

Be alert to the timing of your MBWA tours. Stay away from start, lunch and quitting time boundaries. You do not want people to think you are checking up on them. Your people will get used to you doing MBWA and some of them may actually look forward to seeing you.

Experiment with MBWA. If your team is virtual learn how to use social media, it is the virtual watercooler. Try it at least two months before you give up on it. If you are not currently using MBWA, your people will wonder what is going on. It will take a while to start working. Once they know you are sincere, you will start to get access to important information and your virtual team will begin to accept impromptu video chats.