5

Management by Walking Around (or Wandering About) is an extraordinarily effective (yet simple) way to keep your finger on the pulse of your team, to build relationships, and hear about problems and concerns early on.

Easy enough to do over coffee with a local team, but how would you go about implementing this concept with remote team members? Can you have the same impact with a phone call, e-mail or video chat?

9

Here is a perspective from someone who has witnessed both (running a remote team and being a part of one) for a decently long period of time.

Some important things here which will decide how well you can communicate with your remote teams:

  1. Have you hired the right guys? Make a mistake here and everything else in this list just doesn’t matter. Hire developers who are not just kick ass developers but are able to communicate and express concerns openly and candidly. In some cultures you might need to be careful of issues like mitigated speech and sugar coating.
  2. Meet them in person; If you are friends with someone working remotely is not even a problem. Of course, you cannot be having coffee with them every day because they are remote but have you made the effort to go out there and meet them a couple of times a year? Meeting someone in person and spending time with them for a few weeks matters.
  3. Use your communication mediums wisely; discuss most work over email and have quick casual catch-ups over phone calls. Most work is best done over email. It’s non-intrusive and if you have a responsible team which replies back on time, work will get done. That doesn’t mean you stop all verbal communication. Calling up to catch up on how someone’s birthday celebrations went or how they celebrated their sprint success is priceless.
  4. Pick one or two points of contacts for personal discussions; Status calls will work, but they are way too professional. You are better off picking one or two people you can genuinely trust (folks with good communication skills who have proved themselves with their work and code in the past) and keeping in touch with them to give you an idea about the pulse of the rest of the team. The point is personal discussions over phone and general catching up.Not a status call with a finite agenda or time. The key here is to get friendship going where neither party hesitate while calling each other in middle of the night and neither of them overdo it.
  5. Video chats are meaningless (at least in most cases); Depending on the country and the culture where your remote teams are located, developers might feel “monitored” when asked to get on video chats so my advice would be to avoid them unless you are sure what you are doing or you know your team members really well.
  6. Allow autonomy; This is a mistake I see most managers managing remote teams make. The desire to know the rationale behind every single decision before it is made cripples your team. Let them make judgment calls and take their own decisions. Unless these are downright wrong or they hurt you don't overrule them.
  7. Respect; Again, you’re going to have lack of information when managing teams remotely. With lack of information it is often fairly easy to doubt your team’s decision. The real question here is, are you able to respect them and empathize with them just like you would do with your office peers. If you can do that and if you have a kick ass team, most of your work is done. They will do the rest.
  8. Management by Walking around by itself has its own perils; One of its biggest proponents Steve Jobs is often criticized for being a jerk. When you do it remotely it's easy to overdo it by calling people every eight hours and expecting responses to your email the very next day. If you have a kickass team that you can trust, my recommendation would be to trust them and not overdo it just because you are not in the action and not feeling the immediate pulse all the time.

The most important of the list however is the first point.

If you’ve failed at that you’re going to have a hard time keeping up with others.

If you’ve succeeded at that, just simple phone and email, are good communication tools. Good luck.

Do let us know how it goes.

3

I ran a distributed team of 8, and was co-located with just one of them. It was easy enough to remain sighted on progress against deliverables via phone calls, emails, and a regular team video meeting, but extremely difficult to "take the temperature" of the team by such means. The best way to understand how individuals were feeling, or identify the undercurrents and interactions between members of the team and each other, or between team members and other workers in their locations, was to physically visit them.

Machiavelli wrote "In the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been either detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure." In other words, look out for the first sign of trouble and nip it in the bud. You need to have your radar switched on to identify even the slightest sign of an issue when talking to your team, and without the body language and other forms of non-verbal communications, this is not easy by phone. Pick up on every hint of a problem and decide whether it needs attention - don't leave it to chance.

Of course, this is very time consuming so you need to consider the best way to manage your time, and don't expect a PM with a distributed team to be as productive as a PM with a co-located team. The team may be as effective, but the PM is unlikely to be.

BTW - another definition of MBWA is Mismanaging by Wandering Aimlessly. Make sure it is productive!

0

I've tried a few different things with varying degrees of success as both a project leader and as a member of Rally's fully-dispersed coaching team. As a short answer, I'll say "yes, you can succeed remotely if you're willing to invest."

One item of note: in order to effectively manage by walking around, you need to help the team create the connections amongst themselves that span locations. Otherwise, there's really nothing for you to walk around "to" outside of the current location. This is especially critical for fully dispersed teams.

A few specific techniques:

  • Schedule 1-on-1's both as a leader to individuals and between individual contributors. There's power in giving somebody explicit permission to "just chat" for 30 minutes with somebody half a world away.
  • Engage in random IM and video chats when you know you're not interrupting somebody's flow. I like to lead with a random compliment of their work when they first log on in the morning, as it both helps me get to know people and sets a good tone for the day.
  • Ambient video chats and open conference lines can help get a sense of the emotional context of a distant room. Doesn't work as well with dispersed teams as it does with multi-cell teams.
  • Team chat environments, such as Campfire, can help the entire team keep a casual connection throughout the project.
  • Big visible electronic status boards can help here, for example a monitor displaying the current in progress work, a tail of the latest CM checkins, and a frame for the group chat.
  • Where possible, give people the chance to cross-pollinate across locations. Being aware of the shape of the remote work environment can go a long way towards allowing a virtual presence to feel "real"
-4

I have big doubts that "management by walking around" has anything to do with professional project management. To keep your finger on the pulse of your team you should use Scope Control, Quality Control, and Cost Control tools and techniques listed in PMBOK.

Objective information should "walk around", not a project manager.

  • 7
    I disagree with that completely. Management means managing people and there are entire categories of people who will work more effectively and are better managed in the presence of a personal relationship. Not everyone will like or needs this style, but a manager needs to be versatile enough to recognize who does and accommodate accordingly. Walking around to build relationships and get informal status doesn't replace the need for more formal PM tools, but for many employees the converse holds as well. – Adam Wuerl Apr 4 '11 at 11:38
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    yegor - I think that's a dangerous approach. The formal PM tools should never replace the human aspect of management. – gef05 Apr 4 '11 at 14:02
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    @Gary I would say that human aspect of management should never replace formal project management discipline. Human aspect is important, but should always be aligned with a disciplined process. Otherwise the entire project becomes unscalable, unstable, and chaotic. – yegor256 Apr 4 '11 at 15:05
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    I disagree completely as well... Project work is done by people, not robots, and relationships and trust can have a much bigger impact on someone's willingness to go the extra mile than an automated task reminder from a tool. The formal discipline and tools of project management should complement the human aspects of people management, not replace them. – Sean Earp Apr 4 '11 at 16:43
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    @yegor - Your description creates the sense of a complete separation/dislocation of the two areas (ie. formal discipline and tools | human aspect). I agree there can certainly be tension between the two, but I'm not sold that a project can stay healthy with them as divided as you describe. – gef05 Apr 4 '11 at 17:39

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