You Can Learn A Lot Just By Walking Around

Yogi Berra once said, "You can observe a lot by watching." This unforgettable quote describes a technique popularized as “management by walking around,” or “MBWA,” in which supervisors walk around and talk to staff members in random fashion about their jobs, projects, equipment, or just life in general. It’s intended to provide a sampling of what is really going on. The practice was formalized in the 1970s by executives at Hewlett-Packard, but was galvanized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their book, In Search of Excellence.

What is MBWA? Does it have use in education? Perhaps more than anything, MBWA is a powerful communications technique that enables leaders to see and hear firsthand what’s really going on in schools and classrooms. It’s an opportunity to build trust, encourage honesty, and show that you care by not only asking about your colleagues’ work, but their lives, their interests, and their hopes. It’s a chance to really listen to what is on the minds of the people who are responsible for carrying out the mission of the district each day. 

Teachers have been doing this for a long time. It’s how they get to know their kids. Do kids work harder for someone who they think cares and knows about them? Of course they do! For a different perspective, a friend of mine explained that the way he determines whether or not a teacher is effective is if they know his middle school son likes to fly fish. If they know that about him, then they must really know him. And, if they really know him, he’ll do anything that teacher asks him to do.

Likewise, employees will work harder for a leader who seeks their input, listens sincerely, gets to know them, and is authentic about it. About the only way to screw it up would be to make forms, have checklists, do a stratified sample, etc. That would be akin to ruining recess by grading it. The process is meant to be informal. You may certainly get hints of ideas or problems that merit formal investigation, but it is more about getting a sense of what’s going on around you.

Let me use a practical example. Suppose your district just adopted a new set of math textbooks or supplemental materials, but teachers tell you they are struggling to make sense of them. When you ask a principal, she verifies the same thing. Now what? Here’s the chance to do something. Maybe you find the teachers who have found ways to make sense of the material and are using it appropriately to share with others. Or, you could bring in a consultant to share best uses of the materials. The point is you heard it from several sources, verified it, and then acted on it.

Does that mean you have to act on everything you hear? Of course not. There is noise and there are signals. And, you have to make sure you know the difference. Make the experience about learning, knowing, and listening. Sometimes people just want to vent to the boss. It’s therapeutic. It’s amazing how much good comes from talking to people eye to eye. It can reduce conflict. It provides you the opportunity to explain a new initiative or gain insights into potential challenges.

What if you don’t do it? Then you rely totally on others to give you feedback from their direct observations, not yours. You miss the chance to see and hear firsthand accounts from the field. It’s why President Abraham Lincoln often visited and inspected the troops himself during the Civil War. The experience is about being there. That, in and of itself, is very motivating. It’s what your presence means to people. For a long time, I underestimated how important it was to get out and actually talk with staff and kids, not just parents. It’s a communications technique that will pay great dividends in motivation, communication, and problem solving.

Ania Striker