Are You a Project Manager or Business Analyst?

I’ve been working with project managers and business analysts for the past 25 years and have thought a lot about the similarities and differences between the professions. I am convinced that they are separate, yet equal careers. Although many of us perform both roles, I believe most people prefer one role over the other. I am never happier than when I am analyzing a complex business problem and designing an innovative solution. Studies have proven that when you do work that you love, you are more committed, more motivated, and more successful. I believe your long-term career success and job satisfaction will be greater if you are honest with yourself (and your manager) about where your true passion lies.

Career Paths

The business analysis profession is relatively new compared to project management. In the past, many organizations pushed business analysts, designers, architects, and engineers to move into the project management profession as the only way to achieve higher salaries and recognition. Yet project management is very different from the analytical/design nature of the work that had brought them success in the past.

As project managers, these individuals were suddenly expected to lead and support team members, develop and manage project plans, and oversee completion of a product or solution rather than designing it. Human resource management groups have recognized that rather than promoting someone into a different type of work, it is better to provide them an opportunity to grow in the work at which they have already shown success.

As organizations create career paths for business analysts, separate from project management, professionals now have a choice: become a project or program manager overseeing one or a series of projects, or become a business analyst with responsibilities more focused on identifying and defining business improvements. Most business analysts start their careers working on projects and then grow into solving larger, more complex business problems and may help the organization identify projects and programs. This is an area sometimes referred to as portfolio management or enterprise analysis.

Deciding Which Path to Pursue

To decide which path to pursue, you need to be aware of your true nature. Most people excel in one role more than the other because they enjoy it more. People in both roles need strong communication and problem-solving skills. But there are significant differences in the day-to-day activities performed by a project manager and business analyst.

Project managers lead, direct, delegate, manage, oversee, and encourage team members and stakeholders to commit the time and skills needed to get the project done. Business analysts elicit requirements, study business processes, brainstorm about solution options, identify solution interfaces, and assist stakeholders in designing a solution that meets the business need while also being feasible and cost-effective for the organization.

Characteristics of Business Analysis

Business analysis has emerged as a separate discipline from project management because people (like myself) doing both jobs realized an inherent conflict in the roles and struggled to do both well. Business analysis requires learning about business processes and procedures at a very deep level. You really can’t recommend business improvements unless you understand the rationale behind the business tasks.

Business analysts love to spend time learning complex business rules, policies, and intricacies. We love using structured analysis techniques to illuminate a complex problem or process in a simple, elegant diagram. We love to be challenged to find a creative, innovative approach to existing work and see if the business people are willing to make the changes necessary to adopt these improvements.

We make sure every detail of the solution is designed to fit easily with other solutions and existing processes. We are never completely satisfied with our work, because we always know more can be done to improve the business: a little more waste could be squeezed out of the process, a slightly higher-quality product could be built, slightly fewer errors could occur (if you are a perfectionist, you might be a business analyst). But these desires sometimes pose risks to project timelines and scope.

Interestingly, this obsession with studying and understanding complex systems is often coupled with a more introverted personality type. Business analysts usually balance their time working with stakeholders with quiet, solitary time thinking, analyzing, and designing possible solutions. Business analysts are rarely interested in managing other people. They sometimes struggle in a co-located office design (cubicles) because noise interrupts their cognitive process.

Characteristics of Project Management

By its very nature, project management requires its practitioners to be single-mindedly focused on completion of the project. Acquiring people, materials, money, time, and everything else needed to successfully complete the project is a constant focus. Overseeing team dynamics, coaching, mentoring, and articulating a common vision of project success are all important project management tasks to ensure team productivity.

Project managers keep pushing the team to move forward when members are hesitant to let go of a task or reluctant to jump into a new phase of the project. They are optimistic leaders who encourage their teams with confidence and engage sponsors to actively support project needs. Excellent project managers know when to let a detail go and when to make an adjustment to the plans. They recognize stakeholder impatience and know when political expedience is critical. Project managers are typically more extroverted, enjoying the collaborative nature of managing a team.


Project managers and business analysts are key professionals for successful organizations. Most organizations have embraced the project manager role, and the profession has become very important in almost every industry. Project managers are highly valued, highly compensated, and in great demand. Project management career paths allow senior-level professionals to take on bigger and more complex projects and programs.

Formal business analysis career paths are becoming more common as organizations recognize the value of analytical and critical-thinking skills and the difference from project management. Professionals who want to focus on complex problem solving are becoming more highly valued in industries like financial services, health care, and energy. Experienced senior-level business analysts take on more complex problems, are involved in more strategic innovations, and help organizations make more rational portfolio management decisions based on projected business value.

Decide which path is right for you and help your organization see your value. Communicate about the skills you bring to your work and your passion for success. If you do what you love, you’ll love doing it!