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24 September 2009 • 7:00 am

Strategy by Walking Around

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Many years ago, there was a bit of a surge in the management buzzword stream of an idea called Management by Walking Around (MBWA). Although the idea is traced to early days at Hewlett Packard, where managers were encouraged to spend their time visiting employees, customers, and suppliers, the idea was popularized in an 1985 book by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin entitled “A Passion for Excellence.” Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of the book or MBWA; my sense is that the idea has been out of the mainstream for a while. Perhaps the walking around concept became obsolete around the time that telecommuting became possible and popular.

I think that walking around can be effectively applied in the arena of strategic management. Few executives that I’ve interviewed in the course of developing organizational strategy have disagreed with the prediction that I’d get many different answers if I were to separately ask managers and employees to describe their organization’s strategy. So walking around and asking the strategy question is a useful diagnostic; a way of creating a sense of urgency around formulating and communicating strategy across the enterprise.

Wise executives can take the walking around idea a step further. By asking managers, supervisors, and employees to describe the strategy as they see it, and the crucial follow-up question: “How has your understanding of the strategy changed the way you work?”, it seems that executives can gain valuable insight about the practicality of the strategic intent. If rank-and-file and middle managers in the organization are unable to articulate how to make strategy happen, it is pretty safe to conclude that any success in strategic change will happen by accident, or in spite of employee intent. If, on the other hand, folks are able to describe the strategy and their individual roles, executives will be better equipped to make the right decisions, allocate resources, and remove the roadblocks to strategy execution.

I’ve put a great deal of emphasis on the idea of formal communication of strategy, and my passion for this idea is undiminished. But I also believe that executives maintain too much distance between themselves and the day-to-day work of running and changing the organization. When was the last time you were part of a substantive two-way discussion between senior management and employees about the job of strategy? Maybe it’s time to start walking around.

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