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Chances are, if you're considering a career in business, you've come across the terms "business analyst" and "project manager." But what's the difference between the two? And which one should you aim for? 

In this post, we'll break down the key differences between business analysts and project managers, so you can make an informed decision about your future career.

What Does A Project Manager Do? 

A project manager is responsible for the successful execution of a project, from start to finish. They are the ones who develop the project plan and timeline, track progress and milestones, and keep stakeholders and the project team informed of status and changes. 

A project manager must also be able to identify and manage risks, as well as resolve issues that arise during the course of the project, including performing scope management to ensure the end product can be successfully delivered.  

In short, a project manager wears many hats and has a lot on their plate as the facilitator of project success. Luckily, their goal is always the same: to see the project through to completion and stay on scope, on time, and on budget

Project managers care about: 

Project managers are highly communicative and might be considered a little obsessed with planning and organizing. 

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What Does A Business Analyst Do?

A business analyst works with a company to understand business requirements, including getting to know existing business problems and processes in-depth in order to recommend changes that might be implemented via a project initiative. 

In other words, business analysts work with stakeholders across contexts (external customers, internal customers, project sponsors, those impacted by a process, etc.) to understand their needs and then come up with solutions that will help the company save time and money. 

A business analyst is responsible for the “business analysis” or understanding the needs of a project and translating them into requirements that can be used by a project manager to determine the project scope

In order to do this, they must first understand the business domain, as well as the goals and objectives of the project. They then work with stakeholders to define the requirements that will make up the project. 

This process often involves workshops, interviews, and focus groups. In agile terms, a business analyst performs some of the product manager and product owner functions of defining requirements based on the needs of stakeholders or a persona. 

Once the business and project requirements have been gathered, the business analyst creates a document that outlines all of the project's deliverables. This document is then used by the project manager to ensure that the project is on track and meeting all of its objectives. 

Along the life of the project, the business analyst will likely work with the project team members to ensure that the requirements are understood and will be met with the project outcomes (requirements management). 

Business analysts care about business problems, requirements gathering, requirements documentation, requirements traceability (answering the question, “who asked for this?”) and process engineering. Business analysts are often highly detail-oriented and in many cases, are considered somewhat of a technical role. 

Business Analyst vs Project Manager

Here’s a summary of the key differences in the job descriptions of business analysts and project managers. Items on the right, like requirements planning, elicitation, and analysis, are the domain of the business analyst, while items on the left, such as project planning, monitoring, and life cycle, are owned by the project manager. 

The items in the center of the graphic—like stakeholder collaboration, risk management, and scope management—concern both the business analyst and project manager in different capacities. They’ll work collaboratively on these areas, although often one or the other will officially own it.

differences and similarities in the roles of business analysts and project managers
There is some overlap in the responsibilities of business analysts and project managers.

Other Differences To Consider

Here are some other considerations to make if you’re deciding whether to become a business analyst or project manager.

Education & Credentials

Considering education and experience, project managers can be certified by PMI, the Project Management Institute (PMP or Project Management Professional is the most popular of the PMI certification, guided by the PMBOK) and many other organizations across key competencies mostly relating to planning, executing, and controlling a project from start to finish. 

Read more about project management certifications here.

Business analysts can similarly be certified by organizations including IIBA, the International Institute of Business Analysts (CBAP or Certified Business Analysis Professionals being the most popular of the International Institute of Business Analysis certifications, guided by the BABOK), where curriculum and assessments focus on expertise in understanding business processes and defining requirements for future operations, to be implemented via projects. 

Career Opportunities & Compensation

Career opportunities abound for both business analysts and project managers. In both career ladders, typically a senior business analyst or senior project manager is a high-paying, professional career role with a competitive wage. 

If you’re considering entering either of these roles for the first time, associate-level or coordinator roles may be a great place to start to learn some hands-on skills and gain experience in a specific industry, company, or work environment. 

Compensation across both roles varies by industry. For example, business analysts and project managers working in high-tech industries are likely to be compensated more than those working in education.

Splitting compensation analysis across the roles, talented project managers may earn more than talented business analysts, potentially due to a difference in the perception of their value to the organization and criticality in achieving desired project outcomes.

Learn more about becoming a senior project manager here.

What if business analyst and project manager roles are combined? Does this happen?

In some organizations, project managers and business analysts are considered the same in both terminology and function.

While this could work in some very small organizations, as the company grows and challenges become more complex, the likelihood of success for this combined role is lessened as the core objectives of the role are different, but not mutually exclusive (PMI). 

The responsibilities of business analyst and project manager are different, meaning they also have different key interests in the project. The business analyst could be considered most interested in the product (requirements, business needs, outcomes), where the project manager is most interested in completing the project.  

For example, a business analyst may have a deep understanding of a feature requirement that if left out, will render the solution ineffective. On the same project, a project manager might be pressed for time and may suggest removing that critical feature to move the project forward.

In this case, the interests of the business analyst and project manager are opposed—clearly they need to talk. 

In reality, the most successful project managers and business analysts have strong relationships with each other, meaning they understand their role, how they contribute, and what to expect of the other role in working together to achieve desired outcomes. 

Are You Destined To Be A Business Analyst Or Project Manager?

So, which role is right for you? If you are interested in overseeing projects and making sure that they go as planned, then you should pursue a career as a project manager.

If you possess killer analysis skills and are interested in helping companies improve their processes or define requirements for project initiatives, then you should consider a business analyst role. 

Follow The Digital Project Manager to learn more about career paths for project managers. The best way to get connected is to subscribe to our newsletter!

Dr. Liz Lockhart Lance
By Dr. Liz Lockhart Lance

Liz is an agilist and digital project manager with a passion for people, process, and technology and more than 15 years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting, and technology firms. In her day-to-day, Liz works as the Chief of Staff at Performica, an HR software company revolutionizing how people give and receive feedback at work. Liz holds a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership from The University of Southern California and teaches Leadership and Operations courses in the MBA program at the University of Portland. Liz holds numerous project management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work.