Different environments require different management strategies. A professional sports team needs coaching from the sidelines; a squad of soldiers needs a sergeant who's deep in the trenches.

The same is true of offices. Open-plan offices--the standard in today's businesses--are well suited to "management by walkaround." Because everyone is visible, a strolling manager can quckly assess what's going on, and take on-the-spot corrective action.

That type of hands-on oversight, however, is impossible when you're managing a dispersed crew of remote workers--as many managers and business owners have no doubt recently discovered.

As somebody who's worked from home for more than two decades, and managed subcontractors located around the world, I've learned that the management strategy that's best for remote working is management by objectives, a.k.a. MBO.

MBO was the brainchild of management guru Peter Drucker, who in 1954 suggested that if employees were given clear enough goals, they'd figure out how to achieve those goals without the constant supervision. MBO posited five simple steps:

  1. Review organizational goal
  2. Set worker objective
  3. Monitor progress
  4. Evaluate
  5. Give reward

MBO is different from most management strategies in that it deemphasizes three elements prominent in most other management strategies:

  1. Building a system. MBO assumes employees will figure out how to get things done more effectively than a top-down definition of how work should be accomplished.
  2. Attention to process. MBO is results-oriented rather than process-oriented. Basically, management doesn't care how things get done, only that the goals are achieved.
  3. Punishment for failure. MBO is pretty relentlessly upbeat, emphasizing the proverbial "carrot" rather than the equally proverbial "stick."

MBO also makes three demands upon managers that aren't present in more process-oriented management strategies (including walkabout):

  1. Trust. Because employees aren't under constant supervision, managers must trust employees to do the right thing without somebody looking over their shoulders.
  2. Delegation. Because employees are expected to make decisions, managers must be willing to give up the reassuring comfort of being "in control."
  3. Precision. Because employees are focusing on goals rather than process, managers must be exceedingly clear about what constitutes achievement of every goal.

In short, MBO requires managers to do a lot more work--intellectual as well as emotional--than more process-oriented management strategies.

MBO had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, but has since fallen out of favor, probably because MBO puts such a heavy upfront demand on managers, who find it much easier to "wing it" with a more hands-on management style.

MBO, however, is perfectly suited for managing dispersed remote teams, because once well-defined goals are set, it doesn't require management attention, except when employees raise "red flags" that they need help.

Where to start? The goals, of course. Figure out exactly what you want from each employee and define it clearly and quantifiably. Make it clear that you're available to help and coach, if necessary. Then resist the temptation to meddle.

BTW, many of the great breakthroughs in high tech and the aerospace industry took place in the 1970s and 1980s inside organizations practicing some form of MBO. It can and does work, if you're willing to put in the time and effort to do it right.