Much has been written on the subject of "managing by walking around". According to Mike Mears, in his book "Leadership Elements: A Guide To Building Trust", the concept originated in the 1970s at Hewlett-Packard, but it's hard to imagine that this is more than a mere formalization of the something that (hopefully) has happened for much longer than that. In fact, Steven B. Oates asserts that none other than Abraham Lincoln "invented" the practice by informally inspecting the Union Army troops during the Civil War.
At it's heart, this is really about getting a sense of the people you work with, in the normal day to day flow. Because it's basically impromptu (in fact, some proponents call it "wandering around" instead of walking, to reinforce the relatively random nature that the practice really demands), there can be no expectation of formal answers to the questions you might ask your team during a "MBWA" session.
Some best practices for giving it a shot:
- Don't make MBWA too formulaic. If you put it on your calendar as a recurring task, you'll soon discover people who want to chat with you sitting at their desks waiting, and those who don't, well, not... Keep the mystery about it.
- Try not to turn it into another way to get status on people's tasks. It's fine to do this once in a while, but there should be much better mechanisms to see what's done and what isn't (you do some kind of daily stand-up, right?)
- DO try to use it as a mechanism to help out employees who are stuck on something. This might be a coding problem, a career question, or even something of a more personal nature. Be ready to dig in. This is your opportunity to truly build your team, and the strongest teams feel like their leader is willing to be right there with them, working the hard problems. The unscripted things that can happen in impromptu moments are usually the most powerful.
- DON'T turn this into something that takes up too much time. If your team feels like you're taking more than you're giving, they can grow to resent these sessions. If, however, you keep the sessions as brief as possible (unless it leads to being asked to dig in and help with something), your team will come to appreciate them. Good leaders give as much as they get.