Management on the Ground

You have to keep your feet on the ground when others want to put you on a pedestal. After a while on a pedestal, you stop hearing the truth. It’s filtered by the henchmen, and they read you so well, they know what you want to hear. You end up as the queen bee in the hive, with no relationship with the worker bees.

Bill Burns, CEO of Roche Pharmaceuticals
quoted in Goffee & Jones (2006), p. 43

One of my project managers recently mentioned that, despite being a programme manager, my own management style is quite "hands-on". In the sense of being on the ground with my team rather than in the technical sense although the two often come together. This approach has held me in good stead over the years.

Others, like Bill Burns quoted above, have realised dangers of being distant from the people doing the work and the corresponding benefits of being on the ground. I thought I’d take a quick look at some of these previous advocates of being on the ground:

  • Military Commanders on the ground
  • Management by Walking Around (MBWA)
  • Toyota, Lean and Genchi Genbutsu

I’ll wrap up by having a quick look at the Agile practices that help me be on the ground.

Military Commander on the ground

I read a bit of military history and there are a couple of commanders I particularly admire: Erwin Rommel and Ariel Sharon.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, known as the ‘Desert Fox’, was one of the best German generals of WW2. He was a strong advocate of commanders going to the front to find out what was happening. The following excerpt, although about an incident on 11 Apr 1941, also states his overall view on the matter.

The situation was relatively unclear. Next day I took a fire-damaged English command vehicle [Mammoth] up to the front, to try and get a better picture. For the commander to have a good understanding on the battlefield of his own and the enemy’s dispositions is of utmost importance. It is often more important to have an accurate overview of the actual battlefield than to be intellectually more qualified, or to have more experience. This is especially true of a situation were developments cannot be foreseen. A man must observe and learn for himself, since reports from second-hand sources cannot be relied upon as a base for important military decisions.

Erwin Rommel, from Pimlott (1994), p. 68

Translating this to a business and/or project context is quite easy. The “battlefield” is the work setting. The “enemy” is anything that will get in the way of the project.

Before becoming Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon was a capable, if controversial, commander in several Arab-Israeli Wars. Like Rommel, Sharon firmly believed that good commanders must visit the frontline to understand what is going on. The following excerpts are about an incident during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War but once again they really describe his underlying stance about being at the front.

I did feel, though, that my own presence right there with the forward troops was essential. You read these days that in modern warfare and especially in future warfare commanders will be wearing white gowns and pressing buttons from high-technology command centers far from the battlefield. But in fact, reality is exactly the reverse. Firepower today is so massive that the battlefield situation can change in an instant. At the canal I saw a company of tanks disappear in less than a minute. An entire battalion was engulfed and destroyed before they had time to report that they were being hit. With events like these there was no substitute for being forward. You cold not rely on information given to you through normal channels – not your intelligence channel, your operations channel, your administrative channel. Nothing. Not because the information was inaccurate but because it was not information in real time. The massiveness of the fire, the numbers of troops engaged, and the swiftness of changes outdated information before it was transmitted. You simply had to be on the spot looking at developments firsthand, as they happened.

But this was not the only reason I felt I had to be forward. I was a divisional commander, making decisions and giving orders that meant life or death. The soldiers and officers I commanded did not necessarily want me to share the exact dangers and hardships they were undergoing. But because their lives were dependent on my orders, I always felt they were more secure knowing that I was right there, seeing their problems with my own eyes, that it was not somebody sending orders and instructions from a distance with no firsthand appreciation of what they were going through. They knew that if I gave them even the hardest orders, involving the gravest danger, that I was doing so on the basis of immediate personal knowledge. And consequently they were willing to do whatever was necessary, despite the risks.

Ariel Sharon, from Sharon and Chanoff (2001), p. 321

I find Sharon’s comments about the high-tech battlefield suggestive of high-tech projects. In both cases button pushing is no substitute for being on the ground because the best information is gained real time. And the presence of the leader also has a motivation effect.

Management by Wandering Around

Management by walking around (MBWA) originated in the early days of Hewlett-Packard (HP) (Wikipedia: Strategic Management). Senior managers spent most of their days visiting employees, customers, and suppliers. Wikipedia: Management by Wandering Around describes it like this:

The term “Management By Wandering Around” (MBWA), also “Management By Walking Around” refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work.[1] The emphasis is on the word “wandering” as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.

To paraphrase … it is better to go and find the information than wait for the status report.

Serrat (2009) lists several benefits of MBWA:

  1. Cuts through vertical lines of communication
  2. Builds trust and relationships
  3. Motivates staff by suggesting that management takes an active interest in people
  4. Encourages staff to achieve individual and collective goals
  5. Strengthens ability to drive cultural change for higher organizational performance
  6. Refreshes organizational values
  7. Makes work less formal
  8. Creates a healthy organization

Both Future Cents: MBWA – Management By Walking Around and Serrat (2009) have longish lists of guidelines on how to do MBWA. But I prefer the shorter list from Life After Coffee: Management by Walking Around:

  • Visit everyone
  • Stay positive
  • Be genuine
  • Make sure it’s not all business
  • Don’t expect results right away

Tom Peters discovered MBWA in 1980 while researching "excellence" at HP and popularised it in his book on the topic. Tom thinks MBWA is still relevant and better than the military version of "on the ground" (Tom Peters: MBWA After All These Years).

Now, it’s 25 years later … and, frankly, not as much has changed as we had hoped. To this day! A lot of the problem in New Orleans was the absence of MBWA. The fool (perhaps too kind a description) who heads FEMA gave new meaning to "out of touch." But that’s only part of my rant here. More generally I hope to quash terms swiped from the military such as “on the ground” (not all bad—though it gives me the impression of leaders playing at soldier) and resurrect Managing By Wandering Around.

Tom Peters: MBWA After All These Years

Toyota, Lean and Genchi Genbutsu

Toyota has high levels of management presence on the production line (Wikipedia: Genchi Genbutsu). That is because "Genchi Genbutsu" is a key principle of the Toyota Production System. Literally "Genchi Genbutsu" means "go and see" at the the "real place" to understand. In other words to truly understand a situation you need to go to where work is done, spend some time there, and have a good look. The underlying belief is that whatever gets formally reported to management is only an abstraction of what is actually going on. The metrics and reports will reflect the attitudes of the correspondents (management questioner and the workplace responder) to the work and to each other. Going to look means this filtering is removed. It also increases the likelihood of observing actual issues and unplanned events first hand thus allowing immediate management intervention.

We can talk about work improvement, but unless we know production thoroughly we can accomplish nothing. Stand on the production floor all day and watch – you will eventually discover what has to be done. I cannot emphasize this too much.

Opening our eyes and standing in the manufacturing plant, we really understand what waste is. We also discover ways to turn "moving" into "working," activities that always concern us.

Ohno (1988), p. 78

Although Management by Walking Around and Genchi Genbutsu look superficially similar with, in both cases, management lurking near workers, there is a key difference. Whilst Management by Walking Around is about visiting, Genchi Genbutsu is about being there and the understanding that results.

Agile and being on the ground

All of the above ties nicely with how Agile managers should behave. Ken Schwaber has this to say when explaining what software development should be used with an "empirical" process control model:

We were wasting our time trying to control our work by thinking we had an assembly line when the only proper control was frequent and first-hand inspection, followed by immediate adjustment

Schwaber, & Beddle (2002), p. 25

I agree. A few Agile practices help me manage on the ground: daily stand ups, colocation, timebox planning meetings, timebox review meetings, and information radiators.

Running and attending daily stand ups (or Scrums) are my favourite tactic for keeping informed about what is going on. I always use them when running a project or programme. My current programme has four daily stands ups – one for the whole programme team (we tried a Scrum of Scrums but it didn’t work for us), and small team level stand ups. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.

Daily stand ups are also very useful for pure line managers. In an previous role, when I was line management with no delivery responsibility, I had 105 software engineers and testers in 12 Scrum teams, spread across rather a large building. I was new to the organisation, didn’t know anybody, needed to get a personal profile across the organisation, so I could add some value and forge a team spirit. I did a variety of things to achieve this but the key was was attending the daily Scrums. Not all of them everyday; I had a rota and visited each team about once in two weeks. But that was enough. And, frankly, it surprised the teams to have a senior manager actually care enough about what they were doing to turn up. Although in Scrum terms I was a "chicken", i.e. an observer and not a participant, the teams found my visits invaluable. It was their chance to ask me to remove impediments outside their control (easier to ask face to face than email), ask for the background to the latest management announcement, or ask for help on improving the way they did things. This last bit was my chance to forge links across teams. For example, one team was just getting into automated testing so I hooked them up with somebody from another team that was very strong in that area.

After stand ups I find colocation most useful. Being within earshot of the whole team, if possible, is enormously helpful. If a crisis comes up, I know about it. If a couple of the guys are about to get side tracked, I can hear and intervene. And, of course, any benefits I get from colocation the rest of the team also get.

If you’re interested in these, and the other Agile practices I mentioned, then have a look at Agile Project Monitoring and Control.

Concluding Words

Managing on the ground fits with an Agile approach in general. It also suits my style. But most of all it helps keep me in tune with what is going on and that is why it is part of my approach to agile programme management.


Christine Masek: Summary of Control in an Age of Empowerment

Goffee, R. & Jones, G. (2006). Why Should Anyone Be Led by You: What it takes to be an authentic leader. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Ohno, T. (1988). Toyota Production System: Beyond Large Scale Production. Productivity Press.

Pimlott, J (Ed.) (1994). Rommel in his own words. Greenhill Books.

Schwaber, K., & Beddle, M. (2002). Agile software development with Scrum.. NJ: Prentice Hall.

Sharon, A, & Chanoff, D. (2001). Warrior: An autobiography. Simon & Schuster.

Serrat, O. (2009). Managing by Walking Around. Asian Development Bank. [Available On-line]