I think that one of the benefits of knowledge work – including managing projects – is that I can be the worker for some tasks and the manager for others, sometimes at the same time. Managers decide what work will be done and sometimes even how it will be done. Workers do the work. Project managers need to do both: managing their work and the work of others and doing work too. When you wear two hats about anything you have to be careful how you split your time so that you don’t end up doing one more than the other when that isn’t the right balance. In project management, we have to balance defining the work to be done with actually doing the work and it’s a balance that can be tricky to get right.

Being the Manager

When you are acting as a manager, you have to decide what tasks there are to do. In the project environment that means working out how you are going to spend your day:

- Should I review the risk log?

Should I focus on the upcoming release and update my project schedule in?

Should I meet with my team?

Should I spend time doing that report for my project sponsor?

Should I work through my inbox and respond to all my unread messages?

In other words, what is the best use of my time right now given the situation on my project? And how is that likely to be different tomorrow so 

I make the best decisions today to underpin whatever challenge is going to hit tomorrow?

Being the Worker

When you are being a worker you take the information that you have to hand to carry out a task. Simple!

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear description of what a project manager’s worker tasks look like. On some projects you’ll be taking minutes, on others you’ll be working with a project co-ordinator or admin support person who will do that. The project manager role is so varied that it’s impossible to list all the different tasks that you might do. And that also makes it difficult to recognise them when they come up!

Switching between the two

You’ll hear people say that multitasking doesn’t work but in reality, it’s difficult to only be a manager or only be a worker at any one time. That’s because you’ll be facing incoming information in the form of emails, calls and other interruptions. That information forces you to switch to manager-mode as you have to prioritise it and plan to deal with it. If you can switch off the interruptions then good for you.

The risk is that you spend too much time managing, planning, dealing with the manager parts of your job and not enough time doing the work of getting the project done. Or the other way round. Or that you spend so much time analysing where you are and what mode you are working in that you never get anything done at all.

Getting the balance right

It’s actually quite easy to get the balance right. Depending on your project you should spend more time managing than doing. Some project managers find that they naturally gravitate to the strategic and leadership-y tasks. Others find it very difficult to get away from the doing, especially if they were previously in a ‘doing’ job. For example, an IT programmer promoted to project manager may find it hard to give up the programming part of the job and let others do that, while she focuses on leading the team.

Project managers are constantly dealing with these conflicting roles. Even if you can’t split yourself and your time completely between doing and managing it’s important to recognise that it’s happening in your job. If you know what’s going on, you’ll be better able to mentally partition your time better.

In my experience, you’ll never really switch off as a manager. As you work through the risk log, updating the document and doing the task as a worker, you’ll be no doubt thinking about how you can apply this solution to that task and carving out some thinking time to address new problems.

Having said that, for me, I never really switch off as a worker either. The challenge is finding the space to stop doing worker tasks and to take the time out to consider problems, think strategically and make good decisions. This is ironic, as it is the part of project management I like the best – much more than maintaining an action log or reviewing change requests.

Everyone is different. Understanding your personal preferences and the challenges you face when dealing with worker tasks and manager tasks will help you make the right decisions about how to spend your time.

On your project are you more worker or manager? Let us know in the comments below.