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The difference between planning, project management, line management and leadership

Posted February 14, 2012 by Will Critchlow

Photo by tom coe.

I often get asked about my view on growing teams and managing people. I love chatting with would-be entrepreneurs and up-and-coming managers about the bits and pieces I’ve learnt. I don’t consider myself an expert by any stretch of the imagination - I had barely managed anyone before Distilled - but I often feel that I benefit from putting my thoughts down in writing.

While it’s not strictly on-topic for all of our audience, the regularity with which I’m asked about this stuff definitely qualifies for FAQ status among owners of agencies and consultancies. I hope you find it useful.


Plans are nothing; planning is everything – Dwight D. Eisenhower

I thought I hated planning. I realised, though, that what I really hate are plans. It’s so constrictive to be forced to do things the way you said you were going to, isn’t it?

Planning, though, when done right is pretty exciting. I’m talking here about strategic planning - working out what you can do differently to achieve your over-arching objectives. If you are getting down and dirty with the gantt charts, you’re not planning - you’re project managing (see below).

At the beginning of every project and as often as you need to keep things on track, you should be clarifying objectives, identifying opportunities and creating the plan of attack to achieve those objectives.

Planning is a time for realistic optimism. You want people excited about the opportunities, but believing they are achievable. You should have a fierce eye on the true business objectives.

Project management

The first thing to realise is that you can be engaging in project management even when there is no obvious project. When you find yourself in that situation, your top priority is to identify the project clearly (along with who cares about it, what you’re trying to get done, and by when you need it done). I find myself in that situation frequently - managing things that aren’t part of a well-defined project. I am working hard to get better at sharing my views of what we’re trying to get done by when.

My definition of project management is probably different to that of anyone who specialises in this area full time:

Ensuring and helping everyone involved get done the things they’ve already promised to do

I don’t subscribe to the view of project manager as slave-driver. In knowledge businesses, the actors are (hopefully!) smart, well-motivated and self-directed. They tend not to respond well to diktats or ultimatums. Unless you have the power to fire someone (and are prepared actually to do so if they don’t do this little thing exactly your way) then in my opinion, you are onto a loser trying to be the drill sergeant.

I read an article from Joel Spolsky on AVC today about management teams.

Management is a support function – Joel Spolsky

If you manage people, I encourage you to read it carefully and think about how you are supporting the team you work for (it’s certainly making me think). Note that I think there is an important part of the story Joel has missed out - which is that leadership != management. It is easy to confuse the functions because they are often performed by the same people, but while I like Joel’s article wearing my “manager” hat, I would strongly argue that if he thinks that’s all CXX roles (should) do then he’s either misguided or overpaying. I talk more about leadership below.

Getting back to the management side of things, if you are managed (which applies to almost everyone in the business world) you need to shoulder the responsibility for all the things that you previously thought were “management’s job”. If management is there to support you in being awesome, are you putting your effort into being awesome? Don’t get stuck waiting for management to fix things.

This is why I believe that project management is all about ensuring and helping people do the things they’ve already promised. Ideally those promises come from them (they’re the ones at the coal-face, perfectly placed to make those decisions) - but life gets in the way. When managing a project, you need to hear about changing realities or changing assumptions and let everyone who needs to hear them know.

When wearing my project management hat, I’m trying more and more to focus on two core functions:

  1. check in regularly to hear how things are going and what’s changed
  2. communicate status back to the rest of the world that needs to know about it

Buried in the second task is a hidden subtlety. “Needs to know”. I personally don’t propose Apple-esque secrecy and CIA-style “need to know”, but we need to realise that the opposite (pro-actively tell everyone everything) can result in drowning in information. Cultivate the art of the status update. Put the punchline in the subject line of the email where you can. Clearly flag FYI vs. action emails. Summarise. Shorten.

A framework I was taught by one of our board members is RACI - for every project consider:

  • Who is Responsible for day to day progress on this project
  • Who is Accountable if it all goes wrong
  • Who needs Consulting to extract valuable insight or opinions
  • Who needs Informing of progress

Line management

It’s easy to blur the lines between line management and project management (and into micro-management). I’ve been guilty in the past of conflating the concept of being a line manager with being “someone’s boss”. Line management as we (try to) practice it at SearchPilot should be about personal happiness, productivity and progress. Of course, this overlaps into projects where they impact directly on one of those things, but we should realise who has the power to fix what. Line managers typically aren’t project managers on all their direct reports' projects.

For me, line management is all about removing road-blocks to self-improvement. I am a strong believer in “learning, not training”. I will happily share my accumulated knowledge, thoughts and prejudices (some would say too readily) - but I’d rather do it in response to demand from curious people than as a broadcast to yes-men who are forced to listen because I’m “in charge”.

Line management should largely happen in private, should be a place where tough feedback can be given (and collected) and should focus on the individual.


The most mythical of them all.

Like many people who have started businesses, I’m intrigued by leadership. I don’t think of myself as a leader in any kind of traditional sense - yet my role involves steering ever-increasing numbers of people. Given the option to force them there or to lead them there, I’ll choose leadership please.

We aren’t going to train you, we’re going to try to kill you – SAS training manual

Wherever you are in the organisation, remember that the more you subscribe to Joel’s upside-down hierarchy above, you don’t get to lead by authority. You need to lead people to support your projects, your ideas and your direction. You can do any of this without it saying “leader” on your business card.

Here’s how I’d like to be led (I still fall short of many of these). My ideal leader would be:

  • Logical. I have little patience for illogical arguments (though see “passionate” below)
  • Coherent. Able to express their views and defend them against robust criticism
  • Passionate. Logic and data only get you so far. Emotion is important, but try not to delude yourself. Take a position but be…
  • Wrong (sometimes). If you aren’t ever wrong / don’t ever allow yourself to admit to being wrong, you’re either only taking safe bets or you’re not being intellectually honest.
  • Visionary. In the sense of talking about the future. Describe how you expect the future to be - right or wrong, you can bring with you those who agree
  • (the right kind of) detail-oriented. I don’t think you need to be naturally inclined to dot every i and cross every t (I hope you don’t!). I do think you need to be great at remembering the existence of tiny details. It’s rare in my experience for great leaders to be blind-sided by a forgotten detail
  • Heads-up. If you want to lead, you have to resign yourself to living in a world of knock-on effects. When you get it right, you’ll have anticipated the impacts on all the diverse areas of the business. I want to write more about this soon - particularly prompted by Wil Reynolds' amazingly open post recently on the unintended side-effects of bonus scheme structures

I would say I score relatively well on being logical, coherent, the right kind of detail-oriented and heads-up. I score myself less well on (communicating) passion, vision and admitting when I’m wrong.

What do you think? Are those the right things to strive for? Who would you say epitomises the different traits? Anyone got them all?

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