Project Practitioners > The Accidental Project Manager

The Accidental Project Manager

By Chris Cook, PMP

READ TIME: 5 minutes


“As a player, you really don’t understand everything that’s important. So when I started coaching, I went over that one situation in my mind – where I was so disappointed about losing the basket and wasn’t even thinking about how much better that play was for our team because of the foul. That one personal memory was a big reason for my lifelong theory on free throws: the value of shooting more free throws than the opponents did; getting into a one and one situation faster than they did; getting to a two free throw situation faster; and accumulating fouls on their key players, which would put them on the bench.” – Bob Knight, The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results


Basketball Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight describes his transition from playing to coaching. When he was a player, it was all about his achievements and goals. His happiness and satisfaction came from scoring points, grabbing rebounds, and accumulating assists.

If someone scored by not passing Knight the ball, he felt scorned. Even though the result was positive for the team, he wanted to be the person scoring. This selfish attitude did not translate well to coaching.

As he became a head coach, the individual numbers became less important. Who cares who scored as long as points were put on the board. No one remembers who rebounded the ball which leads to the fast break resulting in two points. The minutiae became unimportant. The results were all that mattered.

Many project managers have past lives at production positions. Whether it is the number of lines of code or linear feet of storm sewer pipe installed, your job was production based. The more you got done, the better team member you were. You wanted to be on the high profile project being the best performer, so you stood out.

This attitude led to a transition into management. Now, production becomes a team effort rather than an individual activity. The details of who does the work become less important than the work itself.

For the Bob Knight example, drawing fouls on an opponent does not show up in the box score. However, from a coach’s perspective, drawing fouls on an opposing star player impacts the game greatly. While this stat is not official, you are helping your team. Drawing fouls not only forces the star player to sit on the bench but also puts your team in a bonus free throw situation.

In a business sense, rival companies making mistakes is like drawing fouls. The results do not show up on your bottom line, but it helps your organization.

Here are some of the biggest differences when transitioning from field/production workers to management:


  1. Selfishness vanishes

Workers come into work at 8 am and leave around 5 pm. They sit down at their desks and do their job. Interaction may not be necessary. Work is thought about only at work. Once the clock strikes 5 pm, their brains shut off for the day and focus on personal endeavors.

Managers turn an eight hour day into ten. The drive into work is consumed with thoughts about different directions for the project. After work, they may get together with other managers to continue discussions from the day. At home, thoughts of the project creep into their heads.

Instead of one person to worry about, managers have teams of people looking for next steps or actions. This reliance upon the manager causes different stresses. If the project fails, not only is your job on the line but also team members can be at risk.

Selfishness does not have a place in management. If you want to perform all of the tasks and excel, you no longer have a team. The team succeeds with great leadership from management, not the performance of a task from management.


  1. Limitations disappear

As a production worker, there is only so much you can get done in a day. Your hands move so fast, your feet can take only so much standing, and your brain turns to mush after a certain time. Your physical limitations do not allow for you to build faster. Your muscles wear down after hours of jackhammering, bricklaying, or typing.

Managers have boundless opportunities to become better. If you continue to learn and stay open-minded, your tools are additive. There is no shortage of information regarding management styles and approaches to leadership. You can take aspects of different styles to create your own style. Find out what works and what does not. Widdle down techniques to fit your organization and team.

Physically, you can only get so strong. Genetics do not allow for limitless strength to produce for days on end without stopping or making a mistake. Humans are not robots. Mentally, you cannot get too smart. There is no limit as to the information you can gain and apply.


  1. Get rid of that ‘I can do it better’ attitude

Because you were such a high performer, letting go can be difficult. You can perform these tasks at such a high level you want to do everything at all times. A foreman for a storm sewer crew may be found in the trenches when he or she should be planning the next run of pipe. A programmer at heart may be seen entering code instead of meeting with owners and stakeholders.

As a manager, you should be sympathetic towards individuals having a difficult go of things. When you were a production worker, making adjustments and learning new techniques was difficult. Now that you are a manager, you expect people to pick it up right away and start running with it forgetting how difficult those transitions can be.

While the truth may be you can do it better, you need to raise the performance of the team through guidance. Find ways for your team members to comprehend. Frustration on your end only leads to frustration amongst the team. You did not learn everything on day one. Now that you have the knowledge, instead of thinking you can do better, get your team to perform at a higher baseline.



If you are good at your job, promotions will come naturally. You will start from the bottom and work your way to the top. Throughout this process, there will be a phase of transitioning from production worker to management. Bob Knight’s transition was from player to coach.

Your goal as a player or production worker is to be the best you can be. You train the hardest. You put in the hours. You see the results on the stat sheet. You average the most points, write the most lines of code, or excavate the most dirt. These accolades lead to management positions.

Now, you must abandon some of those qualities that made you a great player or production worker and develop different mindsets as a coach or manager. How many points a player scores no longer matters as long as the team is winning. How much dirt an operator moves does not matter if the project gets done on time. The fact that you can do these tasks better no longer matters.

Your shift goes from individual to the team. Your schedule goes from tasks to projects. Like learning how to perform your best as a production worker, your abilities as a manager take time to develop as well. Realize the limitations on your potential as a manager do not exist. Continue to learn and impart that knowledge to your team.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

The comments to this entry are closed.

©Copyright 2000-2017 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

Stay Connected
Get our latest content delivered to your inbox, every other week. New case studies, articles, templates, online courses, and more. Check out our Newsletter Archive for past issues. Sign Up Now

Follow Us!
Linked In Facebook Twitter RSS Feeds

Got a Question?
Drop us an email or call us toll free:
7am-5pm Pacific
Monday - Friday
We'd love to talk to you.

Learn more about ProjectConnections and who writes our content. Want to learn more? Compare our membership levels.