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I bumped into Sir Alex Ferguson (literally) at the airport the other day. He was a pretty good footballer in his day, but what he undoubtedly did best was manage. I might have missed it, but to my knowledge, in 26 years of managing Manchester United, Sir Alex never once picked himself to play. The same can’t be said of all football managers. I certainly never understood why some, whose playing days are surely over, still wear tracksuits to the match. Sir Alex never did that. He always wore a suit or jacket and tie on match day.


My first steps into management in the early part of my career were unremarkable for the 1980s – the days before the competency interview took hold. I was a computer analyst in a large UK bank, and was considered to be OK at it by my paymasters. I progressed through the grades (people working in banks love all that) and got better and better at it. When I got really good at it, they stopped me doing it and gave me a job managing a team of computer analysts instead – something I had absolutely no experience of, no training for, and was completely unqualified to do.

I loved it. I was 21 and now responsible for a team of my mates on the night shift from 5pm until 3am. I would run the bank’s mainframe, applying what I’d learned as a geek to optimize the overnight batch schedules so we could get the work done by 9pm instead of 3am, meaning most nights we could finish work six hours early and go to the pub.

After 12 months though I was pulled up by the boss and told my job was not to do the work, but to manage the team that does. It was a fair point. I’d become a manager by accident and wasn’t very good at it. The work always got done, on time and to quality, plus I’d managed the risk of computer failure every night by creating a six hour contingency window. If you took each shift to be a mini project I was doing a good job, but my staff weren’t being developed, I was working ridiculously hard personally, and all our livers were the worse for it.

Back then, for a time at least, I probably was more capable at doing the work than the rest of my team – I was certainly a better computer geek than I was a manager. In short, was still a doer. So how can you tell if you’re in danger of becoming more of a project doer than a project manager?

The 5 Signs of Project Doing

Here are 5 signs that you may not be getting the balance between project managing and project doing quite right:

  1. You find yourself attempting to influence business requirements (or worse, writing them) and steering the business to take one particular solution over another. By all means review requirements for quality purposes, and vet supplier bids and designs for fitness with those requirements, but give the business the freedom to set out what they want. Concern yourself with managing things such as scope creep and delivery risk instead.
  2. You’re consistently working excessive hours. Record then analyse what you’re doing all day for a couple of weeks. If you’re not spending the majority of your time on key project management tasks (e.g. planning, monitoring, communicating, managing relationships, controlling spend, putting out fires) you may be working on the wrong stuff (or in the wrong job).
  3. You’re personally scheduled to work on project tasks. If you appear as a named resource in your project plans for anything other than core project management activities, challenge yourself. Are you really the best person to do that activity? Do you have the right people on your team, enough of them, and are they competent. If not, change them and/or get more of them.
  4. You find yourself getting shot down in meetings. If your opinions are often being discredited or challenged by others, you may well be straying into areas you’re not best-qualified in – areas best left to your SMEs to deal with.
  5. You don’t have a clue. If you’re stuck in a meeting and you haven’t got any idea what the rest are talking about, one of a number of things is probably going on a) You’ve let the meeting get out of hand and stray off the agenda – get control b) The other attendees don’t know what they’re talking about either – unlikely, but possible c) You shouldn’t have been in that meeting in the first place – possibly. Consider whether you need go to content, detail focused meetings. You don’t need to understand the minutiae of something to control it effectively.

Perception = Reality

My perception (and therefore reality) is that most organizations have no shortage of highly capable people – SMEs who know their business backwards. What’s sometimes missing is someone who can look at a business objectively in light of the changes senior managers are looking to make… and then make those changes happen. For that you need a project manager, not another project doer or SME.

People will always see things differently, of course. Over the years I’ve been accused of building empires, of delegating too much, not understanding the technicalities of stochastic modelling, actuarial science, and so on. And yes, on occasion, I have actually found it very necessary to get extremely hands-on. But, 25 years after my first foray into management, I’ve rarely if ever come across a situation where I could really do specific roles on any of my projects any better than the subject matter experts (SMEs) themselves.

Your job as project manager is not to do the work, but to manage the team that does. So please, don’t ever turn up to work in your tracksuit.

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