The Great PM and BA Debate
I recently came across an extremely interesting and lively debate in the Business Analyst Times LinkedIn discussion forum, where the perennial discussion of the relationship between the project manager (PM) and the business analyst (BA) was discussed. A number of views were stated during the discussion, and it’s clear that in some organizations, a view exists that there is a natural career path from senior BA to PM.
Some take this view further. In Juliet Alters’ article The Yin and Yang Of Project Management and Business Analysis, she argues that interested BAs should be groomed for project management roles. I’ve always found this view curious. While there is certainly some overlap between the roles, the disciplines of business analysis and project management are distinctly different.
As Elisabeth Larson quite eloquently points out in her article Can You Be Both PM and BA on the Same Project?:
The PM's role is to meet the project objective (PMBOK® Guide Fourth Edition Section 1.6). The BA's role is to help organizations to reach their goals (BABOK® Guide 2.0 Section 1.2). This is a subtle but important difference.
There may be similar shared competencies, but there is a very different focus. To draw an analogy, an electrician and a plumber may share similar core competencies (dexterity, ability to read schematic diagrams, ability to communicate with customers, etc.), but I can’t imagine anyone arguing that an electrician should expect to progress to a plumbing role.
The BA and PM roles are complementary but different. This difference in focus between project roles provides a significant benefit to projects and organizations that are prepared to engage both skill sets appropriately. An effective BA working with an effective PM leads to a powerful combination. This power comes from the healthy tension between the two worldviews, which often manifests itself as a healthy two-way challenge—a friendly rivalry if you will.
A PM will be focused on delivering the stated project objectives within scope, time, and quality while managing risk. A good BA will work to ensure the project delivers what the business stakeholders need, which isn't always what they ask for, in a timeline that delivers maximum business value and customer value at a price they can afford. This (counter-intuitively) might not be the shortest timeline.
The healthy tension, challenge, and balance between the two roles ensure that the organization increases its chance of getting the best business outcomes from its projects. There are no absolute truths in projects—neither the BA nor PM viewpoint is completely right or completely wrong, but the organization benefits from having a balance of both.
In my view, a career move from BA to PM or PM to BA isn’t up or down—it’s sideways. This presents an opportunity for those who want to broaden their experience. However, it should be a path that is consciously chosen and should not be seen as a natural progression. And it’s important to only fulfill one role at a time; otherwise the benefit of healthy tension and challenge is lost.