How to Walk Around the Office–Even If There Isn’t One

Tom Peters, whose 1982 book, In Search of Excellence (co-authored with Robert H. Waterman Jr.), started an entire movement, got a lot of things relating to management strategy correct. And he got almost as many guesses wrong when it pertained to which specific companies were likely to be long-term winners. Prediction is tough under the best of circumstances; predicting the future is even harder.

But one of the things he absolutely hit out of the park was his concept of management by walking around (MBWA), which suggested that (a) the best managers were those who were most adept at regular, ongoing communication, especially with the frontline troops, and that (b) the most valuable and instructive of those communications were almost always informal and face-to-face in the field. Covid-19 has largely removed the prospect of many of these conversations going forward.

Not surprisingly, those critical conversations were most often accomplished by managers who spent a significant amount of time patrolling their offices, buildings, and factories and listening to their people at all levels. Careful and consistent listening to everyone who is willing to share is the way important insights, crucial data, innovative ideas, suggested practical changes, and employee attitudes are gathered and ultimately evaluated and implemented where appropriate.

Peters made clear that the image of a bunch of executives quietly sitting behind their desks on the umpteenth floor trying to manage complex entities and waiting patiently for the news and reports of the day to make their way upstairs was an old-time and unrealistic fantasy. Information has no value unless it’s effectively and timely communicated and turned into actionable knowledge. Knowledge is nice to have, but it’s not useful and powerful until it’s applied and results in concrete actions and reactions. Shared knowledge and ideas are force multipliers that aren’t subject to the law of diminishing returns. Businesses have simply become too complicated, too distributed, and too layered to be effectively administered from afar, after-the-fact, or exclusively top down.

In addition, we know that the precision, quality, and immediacy of information deteriorate as it rises and is sweetened and softened through the organizational ranks. Some things never change, and no one wants to be the messenger who gets killed or the bearer of unpleasant news or the “bad” in anyone’s day. Just ask any of the mopes remaining in the Trump White House these days who are scared to death to be in the presence of the raving-mad orange monster.

If anything, an informal fact-finding and investigative process like this is even more important in a time of abrupt change, disrupted org charts, broken chains and channels of communication, and a growing and semi-permanent remote workforce. But unless senior managers start making house calls like the doctors of old, it’s hard to imagine that things aren’t likely to just keep getting worse.

In a world permanently turned inside out by the continuing necessity or desire to work from home, the need for alternative methods of effective communication, information sharing, morale management, productivity measurement, and, of course, innovation is going to be one of the most massive challenges every business will be facing. The reality is that if you can’t see your business, it won’t be your business for long. MBWA, if it’s not absolutely obvious by now, simply cannot work with a material portion of your workforce perpetually remote.

As new team members enter this radically changed environment where any company’s protocol, culture, and strategy will all be much more difficult to share, maintain, and embed in the newbies, they will be increasingly reluctant, if not loathe, to say much of anything, step forward with suggestions, complain, or criticize. In addition, many will be technical resources who are notoriously introverted to begin with, which will make the prospect of their readily and promptly participating and contributing to the critical company conversations even more unlikely. But at least the techies have shared code bases, enforced peer review, and an underlying set of procedures for input and review. The majority of the other team members (new and old) will have little in the way of tools to help them cope with the new world of remote work.

Fortunately, there are powerful solutions at hand, one of which I wrote about in 2016 that has only gotten better and added new important features and functionality as well. It’s a company started in 2015 in Chicago (when I was the CEO of the incubator 1871) and now based in San Francisco called Balloon, which has developed a comprehensive system for companies to connect and collaborate with their workforces. I think of it as a streamlined and tech-enabled way of “keeping in touch,” but, even more important, as an effective replacement for some of those MBWA one-on-ones and factory-floor conversations that may never return.

And, for management, it’s especially timely and valuable because your employees, wherever they’re located, will do most of the initial, relatively painless work by anonymously inputting their own concepts, comments, suggestions, proposals, etc. into the system or responding to prompts generated by the company or by Balloon’s experts. The system encourages and incents them to do so in an efficient and emotionally rewarding fashion as others join in the discussion. The company’s analogy is to a new idea, or balloon, rising through the organization, urged on and advanced by others as they evaluate and get behind it. Similar to sites such as Reddit — and a cousin to concepts such as prediction markets — employees basically upvote an idea by secret ballot until it reaches management for final review and action. At that point, and usually not before, the identity of the idea’s author (if the employee chooses) is revealed and, where appropriate, credit and recognition can be given to that team member.

Even more important, no one is penalized or stigmatized for suggestions that don’t make the cut. In addition, as the process proceeds, there are no uncomfortable collisions between departments, turf wars, stepped-on toes, or other structural or personal impediments to progress. And finally, management will have clear quantitative evidence of the amount and extent of support for the suggestion, comment, or proposal throughout the company. Implementations and change management are a great deal easier when everyone’s already leaning in the right direction.

But the four even greater wins for companies that quickly incorporate the Balloon program into their own post-pandemic communication plans are: (1) substantially improved team buy-in at all levels because management is demonstrably encouraging and asking the right questions and listening to the answers; (2) huge jumps in the quality and quantity of the innovation pipeline because all of the typical and traditional barriers to the free flow of ideas (as well as systemic biases and prejudices) are instantly removed by the initial anonymity surrounding the submissions, including concerns about age, experience, title, authority, gender, position, and rank. Anyone anywhere in the company can have a great idea and see it come to fruition; (3) ideas are improved, iterated, enhanced, and expanded through the process with asynchronous input from experts across the company without wasting enormous time and resources in assembling teams for physical meetings, which would most likely be impractical or impossible right now anyway; and (4) everyone has a new, real-time connection to, and engagement with, what’s going on, what’s around the corner, what needs to change or be fixed, how things can be improved, and how to contribute to the business’s progress in meaningful ways.

Instead of just talking about it, companies that want to grow and prosper can incorporate real and substantive transparency into their organizations. As one Balloon client said a long time ago: “It was like putting on glasses for the first time.” And there’s another very critical benefit that senior management, in its ill-founded belief in its omniscience, often overlooks.

Applications such as Balloon represent an internal, next-generation early-warning system to provide alerts and actual data from the field about unexpected, unforeseen, and unanticipated threats and risks. Because today, it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that can kill your business in no time at all.   

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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