Not my circus, not my monkey

(Original Polish translation: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy)

In simple terms this means ‘Not my problem’ but let’s be honest, ‘not my circus, not my monkey’ is a whole lot more colourful to say and will get you noticed when you say it.

This thought or attitude draws us to a common challenge for today’s change leaders, that is anyone who executes ‘projects’ anywhere on the scale, from significant business transformations through to organisation of events and team meetings, for example.  Anyone who wants to be more ‘social’ since in traditional terms a project manager would have the attitude of ‘this is my problem’ and, as a result, would get involved to resolve the issue. Now in the more ‘social’ world, the project manager needs to have the attitude that the project team should be capable of resolving issues without involving the project manager in many cases. Not all, of course, since some would be significant enough to escalate to the project manager level. But in general terms, it is a change of focus for many project managers.

That said I have, ever since ‘The Lazy Project Manager’ was written, advocated that project managers need to trust their teams a lot more than perhaps many do, and the move towards being a social project manager demands that this is the case.

When it comes to involvement more than in my other book on ‘productive laziness’ called ‘The Lazy Winner’ I speak specifically to a decision process that helps anyone assess whether any specific activity is your ‘problem’, or perhaps I should say ‘is your circus, is your monkey’ (if you can have a reverse version of the polish idiom).

There are three tips I recommend:

Tip #1: Do I want to get involved? Even if I do want to get involved, do I need to get involved?

Don’t do something just because everyone else does it or because it is the ‘usual thing to do’. Just running with the pack is never going to allow you to take control of your own time and will only lead you into over-commitments. It will also detract from others capability and confidence in resolving questions and issues themselves, without always having to involve you: delegation and trust.

If you want to change things for the better, then begin by asking yourself two questions: ‘Is this necessary I get involved?’ and ‘Is this worth getting involved (for yourself and the ‘project’ as a whole?’

If the answer is ‘no’ to either of these questions, then simply don’t! Of course, there will be times when you ignore this advice because you are compelled to get involved because ‘it is the right thing to do’, but you need to make these exceptions just that, exceptional.

Challenge yourself the very next time a decision has to be made that involves your time – ask those two critical questions ‘Do I need to get involved and do I want to get involved’. By addressing the decision-making process objectively, rather than being swept up in enthusiasm, acceptance of delegation, or assumption that you do have to do something then you will be better prepared to a) do what is essential and b) do an excellent job on what you accept is necessary.

Tip #2: Is the result or outcome worth my effort?

Only do the things with the most impact. It is all about applying the good old 80/20 rule. What are the most critical things that you need to get involved in? What is the 20% that will deliver the 80% of the value (and not the other way around that most people do – often the easier actions that provide a false sense of progress). Get the priorities right, and you will achieve far more, and by prioritising this way and assessing if the outcome or output is worthwhile, then you can help do what is most important.

Your time is limited (some people seem to believe that time is flexible and infinite, but they also tend to over-promise and under-deliver) so invest it only in things that give you the most return on your investment. As with all of these guiding rules, there will be exceptions.

Tip #3: Do I have to get involved myself?

Ask yourself if you are the best possible person to do whatever it is that needs to be done or is there someone else in your project team who is better qualified than you to do this thing? Or indeed can the collective team, using social tools, address the issue or task in a far better way than you can yourself. Being honest here and thinking about the project as a whole rather than yourself will lead you to make better decisions.

The strength of saying ‘No’ should not be underestimated and saying ‘No’ can be a very positive thing, if you don’t say ‘No’, ever, then you will never achieve anything. There is the ‘what goes around comes around’ idea as well. Sometimes you shouldn’t say ‘no’ because even though you may not want to do something, need to do something, and there is someone who could do it better, you do want to help out and be that team player or ‘Good Samaritan’.

Or, it is in your interests to get involved so that you can learn some new skills, in which case you may well not be the most visible person for the job.

It is all about balance and priority. Overall you want to deal with the critical stuff plus a reasonable amount of other stuff.

If you keep saying ‘yes’ then your backlog will never go down, and you will spend far too much time working on the unimportant and your project team will be passive and always defer to you in your role as a project manager, in other words, you won’t be a social project manager, and they won’t be a social project team.

At every opportunity, you must think your actions through to the end, as best that you can, and aim to optimise your return on your investment.

Project Management: Not my circus

Peter Taylor is a project and change expert, and the author of the number 1 bestselling project management book ‘The Lazy Project Manager.

In the last five years, he has delivered over 330 lectures around the world in over 25 countries and has been described as ‘perhaps the most entertaining and inspiring speaker in the project management world today’, he also speaks and teaches presentation skills to corporate leaders.

His mission is to teach as many people as possible that it is achievable to ‘work smarter and not harder’ and to still gain success in the battle of the work/life balance. More information can be found at

Peter is also speaking at our Virtual Summit in June. You can look at the programme and book your place here.

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One comment

  • Onayimi May 28, 2019  

    I just discovered this blog and it’s the perfect blog for Executive Assistants, both experienced and now.

    There are certain things that I didn’t encounter in my numerous years as an EA in my native country and having just moved to a new country and applied for an EA role, I wanted to see if there are things that I need to know to better prepare me for my next role, and I must say this blog is God-sent.