Project Managers and Business Analysts

...what's the difference? And why do I need both?

People building an interface as part of a software development project

What do project managers and business analysts do?

These two roles are fundamentally different, and both are vitally important for the job of getting the project done well. This article is for those who want to find out what the difference is between a project manager and a business analyst, what their respective roles are and whether the same person can do both roles.

Reading time: 7 minutes

In very broad terms, the project manager is responsible for delivering the stated project objectives  on time and within budget, and the business analyst makes sure that the solution matches what the organisation really needs. On a good project, they work closely together, and neither job can be done without the other.

In some cases the business analyst will be called in even before the project has started. They will advise at the strategic level and help senior staff decide what sort of project or programme will deliver what’s needed. When the project manager comes on board, their first jobs will be to scope and plan the project. This works best if done in collaboration with the business analyst, who will be starting to develop a relationship with the stakeholders which focusses on their requirements.

The project manager

As the project progresses, the project manager ensures that it is well-controlled in a number of key directions. One of these we can broadly call Responsibilities. Is there a strong Project Board to oversee the project? Are the right people on it, and are they willing and able to take on the necessary responsibilities? Without this solid support from senior staff in the organisation, the project can founder.

The project manager will also communicate with the business on a regular basis to keep everyone updated on the progress of the project, through highlight reports, presentations and other methods.

Time, costs, deliverables and successful projects

Another key consideration is to do with timescales. The project manager needs to understand the details of the timing constraints and ensure the project plan works within them. Is there a definite drop-dead date when things have to be done, or is there more flexibility? What happens to the risks if planned deadlines are missed?

The project manager also considers cost, and will usually be given a budget to work within. They need to maintain good control over the costs throughout the project, reporting  back to the project board as milestones are reached and being able to account for funds spent.

Project activities are often divided into workstreams and it is the project manager who keeps control over the resources, ensuring that each workstream delivers what is necessary for the project to be successful.

Find out more about the fundamentals of IT project management

The business analyst

The responsibilities of the business analyst, however, are very different. Using the tools and techniques at their disposal, the business analyst must understand requirements, explore possible solutions, and facilitate all the necessary changes for the organisation to move to a new way of working. The first job of the business analyst may often be to advise senior managers at the strategic level on the best way to achieve the kinds of changes they are hoping for.

Needs and solutions

The next job is usually to do with requirements, and it’s important to understand what this activity entails. We often say that the business analyst is ‘eliciting requirements’ rather than ‘capturing’ them or ‘documenting’ them. This is because the job of understanding what a business needs is not just a case of asking stakeholders the questions and writing down their answers.

Usually, people don’t know what they really need, or they don’t know what will happen if they get what they ask for. This isn’t because they’re thinking in the wrong way – it’s because it’s a very difficult job to work out which things will really bring benefit. It’s something that needs to be worked through carefully step by step, and this is what the business analyst is trained for.

Change management

Another key responsibility of the business analyst is to manage business change, and this is something that needs to be considered from the very beginning of the project. A good business analyst will communicate well with stakeholders from the start, will ensure that everyone feels involved in the requirements elicitation, and will carry that close relationship with stakeholders through to the final implementation and beyond.

The unique position of the business analyst, as one who has a deep understanding of the required deliverables and how they will bring benefits, means that they are also key to shaping the details of the solution. Because they have been working with the stakeholders and sometimes even shadowing their jobs, they understand the way that people work.  They also understand the roles and skills of the staff in place and are ideally situated to understand the impact the digital and software changes will have on people.

Find out more about what a business analyst does and the tools & techniques they use

Can one person do both jobs?

It’s clear that throughout the project, the project manager and the business analyst are focussing on very different things. But can one person do both jobs at the same time?

The purist answer is probably ‘no’. In order to do each job well, the person doing it should be fully immersed in the way of thinking appropriate to the role. This means that the project manager has to think in terms of keeping the project tight and controlled, while the business analyst has to think widely and creatively to be able to explore genuinely innovative solutions. Trying to do both jobs at the same time is a little like playing chess with yourself – you have to keep switching from one mindset to the other.

However, it’s very common to have a single person acting as project manager and business analyst on a project, and it is often necessary for practical reasons. It can work well as long as the pitfalls are fully understood.

Pitfall #1

First of all , it’s important that the person in the role is genuinely skilled in both project management and business analysis. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen many projects founder for this reason. Someone who is primarily a project manager may believe that requirements analysis can be done by sending round a questionnaire by email and then taking the answers at face value. Or someone who is mainly a business analysis may ignore the importance of the project board and try to run the project with a small team of less senior stakeholders. The lesson is that each job needs to be done fully and proficiently.

Pitfall #2

Secondly, the reason that one person is asked to do both jobs is often out of a hope that money can be saved that way – perhaps it will only cost half as much, since there’s only one person instead of two! Sadly, this is like imagining that you can get a house painted for half the money if you employ one painter rather than two. The fact is that there’s a certain amount of work that has to be done by the project manager and a certain amount by the business analyst. Because the two jobs are so different, there’s little to be saved by overlapping resources.

But there are advantages to having one person hold both roles

That said, one advantage to having just one person in both jobs is that the knowledge from both areas is immediately available regardless of the role being played at the time. For example, if deadlines are slipping, the project manager has the detail of any impact to the business at their fingertips, and can discuss it fully at board level; or if a requirement cannot be satisfied because of strategic considerations, the business analyst has the rationale behind board decisions to hand because they have been present at the discussions.

Good communication between a separate project manager and business analyst can come close to achieving the same thing, but there’s nothing quite like first-hand knowledge.

Conclusion?

Smaller projects with low risk and fewer stakeholders will often work well with one person in both roles. But on larger, riskier projects, the balance usually favours separating them out. The key thing is to look closely at the profile of the project in order to make the decision, and not be tempted into one or the other approach as a result of prejudice (for or against PMs or BAs) or lack of time and money.

Gillian Metheringham

Gillian Metheringham

Gillian has been a Senior Business Analyst and Project Manager for many years in organisations of all sizes. She started in the IT industry as a young programmer working in California, and then spent some years in Seattle as a business analyst in the banking sector.

When she came back to England to start a family, she stayed in the commercial area for some years and then moved on to the varied environment of a large public authority. She has now been consulting for nearly a decade, where she has experienced a wide range of projects in sectors from the construction industry to medical charities.

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