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Are You A Task Manager Or Project Leader? (& Does It Matter?)

A fair bit of time has passed since my good friend Patrice Embry wrote what I consider to be a very important article, titled “Don’t Always Be The One Taking Notes (Why PM Is Not Admin)”.

And yet being the project manager who does all the admin by default is still a prevalent phenomenon that I see everywhere.

There’s something else I’m still seeing: too much time spent making sure people will get their task done instead of being the one looking three steps ahead and clearing a path.

So I thought I’d take it one step further: what are you NOT doing as a project manager when you’re mired in admin and task-level micro-management?

In this article, I’m going to tease out a section of Patrice’s article to talk about the value of a great digital project manager and the opportunity cost of having an imbalance of administrata in your day-to-day. We’re going to take a stroll through:

  • How perceptions influence your actual duties
  • The value of task management and project admin
  • The value of great project management in a digital context
  • 3 ways to find the balance

Ready? Set? Go!

How Perceptions Influence Your Actual Duties

Patrice has some great tips in her article that are still hyper-relevant 3 years on, but there’s one thing I wanted to tease out from her piece and expand upon. It’s this bit:

“Anyone can take notes, but not everyone can write code. Anyone can ensure the conference room is cleaned up after a meeting, but not everyone can design the front end of a website.

It sometimes feels like a no-brainer: if non-essential work needs to be done, give it to the non-essential team member.”

Patrice Embry

There’s two big points in there: firstly, project managers are often seen as non-essential team members, and secondly, the related assumption that the work that anyone can do should be done by the project manager.

What ends up happening is a project manager’s day-to-day starts to be sculpted by invisible expectations and baseless perceptions. In fact, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. People observe you cleaning up after a meeting once, and then next time they see it as part of your job.

I’d argue the same thing happens with task-level micro-management: the first few times, you came to them a week before the deadline to remind them when things were due and volunteered to remove any blockers. So now they feel they don’t need to mind their own deadlines or raise their hand when they’ve got blockers.

Remember, like all good things, perceptions shape reality here. There’s no escaping that.

The Value Of Task Management And Project Administration

But before we get too far, let’s get two things straight.

Firstly, sometimes the little things are your job. At least insofar as the project needs to keep moving efficiently and fluidly. If you’re like me, you probably don’t want to be explaining the timecard where your technical architect tracked an hour for setting up the meeting room.

And the second thing is that task management and project administration are actually really important and valuable. Missing a deadline is not good for your project. Forcing timid personalities to become roaring lions to raise a blocker is not good for your project.

Actually, having someone who bills out at hundreds of dollars an hour making coffee for the client team is not good for your project, either (yes, this is a nod to Lindsay’s comment on Patrice’s article about investing in project administrators).

The Value Of A Great Project Manager In A Digital Context

Still, we need to consider the other side of the equation: what are the most valuable and impactful things that a project manager does throughout a digital project that no one else on the team can do?

Yes, sometimes we get treated as catch-alls. In fact, that’s how some of us fell into the profession to begin with! But it’s important to remember that we’re not. We’re specialists.

We’re specialists at managing risk, communications, quality, expectations, process, cost, and time.

We’re specialists at building trust and strong relationships in a project context.We are the glue that keeps things together. The ones with a privileged perspective on all the moving parts in context.

Actually, our most compelling value from an external perspective is the proactive side of things: looking ahead and making a contingency plan for things that could go wrong; nipping things in the bud before they become something from the Little Shop of Horrors; telling people the things they need to know to be successful, even if it’s not what they want to hear.

And perhaps the same could be said of any project manager, but the thing about digital projects is that being proactive is truly not an option because we’re playing on an ever-shifting landscape. Underlying technology and digital trends change every day. It’s like building a skyscraper on liquid magma using a toy hammer.

That’s why I personally wouldn’t want to take on *any* digital project without a project manager.

Finding The Balance + 3 Ways To Do It

As we start bringing these two sides into perspective—the administrator of minutiae versus being the proactive project leader—suddenly we’re not talking about one type of work being “above” another.

We’re talking about balance. There are two sides to the job, and that balance shifts as you become more senior and start taking on bigger projects with bigger budgets and bigger risks…

So what’s the right balance to be found, and how does one go about creating that balance?

The cop-out answer is that it depends. But earnestly, it does. Everyone has their own personal working style. But here are my top three tips for finding the balance.

1. Take A Step Back And Categorize What You Do

One exercise I like to do is organize what I do into three categories: delegate, systematize, and prioritize.

Delegate / Share

Some people think of these as things that are beneath them, but I don’t think that’s it at all. I think they are things that *could* be done by someone else with relatively little training or prompting.

In my mind, these are the things that help build a team culture of “sharing the load” (see also Patrice’s article where she talks about helping others and having them help you).

Systematize

These are the types of things I do that leverage my sensibilities as a project manager, but could probably be systematized to take less of my work day. Things I’ve included in the example below are things like task follow-ups and building a process around working meetings.

This is what I consider to be necessary machinery, but not high brain-power work.

Prioritize

This is where I put the high brain-power work—the stuff that I ought to prioritize because no one else on the team is situated to do it. Things I’ve included in the example below are things like relationship-building with stakeholders, forecasting team resourcing needs, and measuring performance.

These are things that deliver the highest impact and value—the things that I can add to my story of how I contributed to the success of my project—the things that only I could have done.

Here’s what my own personal worksheet looked like:

Delegate

Share these with the team by building a culture of helping out.

Systematize

Create systems for these that create efficiencies.

Prioritize

Only you can do these, so carve out the time for them!

Capturing meeting notes & distributing minutes

Feeling independently accountable for deadlines

Leading stand-up

Setting up and tearing down meeting rooms

Dialing into the conference bridge #petpeeve

Being the “shared screen” in an internal meeting

Task follow-ups (aka nagging)

Informational status updates

Creating solid task briefs

Getting work done during meetings

Risk management activities

Resourcing and forecasting

Measure project and team performance

Better understand the business and competitive landscape

Build trust and deepen relationships with stakeholders (walk the halls)

2. Have A Clear Brand

This one sounds obvious, but it’s not. At the beginning of my career, I got stuck with a lot of odd jobs that quickly soaked up my bandwidth. It was because of the thing we were talking about earlier: perception. People saw me do something and assumed it was my job.

Later in my career, I didn’t really have that problem. Well, first of all, I should say that although I am of Asian descent, I am ultimately a male, native English speaker that biases towards extroversion in a professional setting.

But even with other colleagues of different backgrounds, the thing I noticed is that when we were sure of who we were and the way we worked, the way we communicated left very little room for someone to lob us a task that was clearly outside of that ethos.

It was even just unspokenly obvious that the value we were delivering as project managers meant we probably shouldn’t be the ones doing content entry when no one else was available.

So, I’d argue that it’s possible to wear your approach to work on your sleeve so that the balance is already struck.

3. Always Weigh The Opportunity Cost

This ties in with the other two: everytime you’re asking yourself if you should be doing something, think of something that would take just as long but would deliver a multiplicity of value and positive impact.

As an example, at a pitch, I used to be the one who would distribute all the hand-outs and agenda and get the projector set up. All that only took about 10 minutes.

But I was often chairing those pitches and then would become the primary point of contact for the attendees afterwards. How long would it have taken to shake everyone’s hand and start building trust with each of them so that they were evaluating me as a person as well as a professional? About 10 minutes.

Returning to our first categorization exercise, a higher opportunity cost should be the driving force that takes the distractions into the left-hand column, and the you-specific items into the right-hand column.

We Want Your Take

So what do you think? Is the job of a project manager polluted with responsibilities that should be done by someone else? Or is this push-pull between strategic value and tactical administration par for the course?

Oh, and if you haven’t yet checked out Patrice’s article, you can find it here.

Also, if you like conversations on topics like this, consider subscribing to our newsletter. Each week, we send our perspectives on trending topics to inspire folks like you and elevate the conversation around the importance of good project leadership in a digital world.

Galen Low

About Galen Low

I am a Client Services Professional and Agile Delivery Specialist with progressive experience driving human-centered digital transformation in government, healthcare, transit, and retail verticals. I manage large, cross-functional teams and executive-level relationships within boutique agencies and large consultancies to drive tangible business outcomes and strategic growth. A few of my specialties: digital strategy, agile web application development, project management, human-centered design, design thinking, innovation & growth, digital government, career coaching, professional development.

One Comment

  • Hi Galen,
    interesting article. Finally, I believe it will depend on the context and mostly on you how you like to organize stuff based on the three categories you have listed in the article. Items in the list change time to time and project by project. Anyway, first priority still remains make the project a success. No matter how.

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