Product Manager vs. Business Analyst – Differences & Similarities

The role of a product manager may differ largely, depending on the aspects such as the size of a company, its products, seniority, as well as prior education.

As part of our Product Manager vs. series, we’ll explore similarities and differences between product management and other roles commonly observed in organizations. You can find the other articles listed here.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how product managers compare to business analysts by describing both functions as well as listing their similarities and differences.

What Is A Product Manager?

Product managers (PMs) are responsible for maximizing the success of the product they manage. They often work together in cross-functional teams, which possess all the necessary capabilities to define requirements, deliver new features, and fix existing bugs.

One of my favorite definitions of the PM role comes from Martin Eriksson (former PM Lead at companies such as Monster, Financial Times, or Huddle) who sees product management intersecting between business, technology, and user experience.

© 2011 Martin Eriksson

If the PM wants to be successful, he or she must not only understand the intricacies of each of those domains but be able to properly communicate and navigate among the three.

Thereby, the PM obtains both an internal as well as external perspective. Internally, he/she may look at aspects such as the company’s business model or overall strategy, technological depth of the product, or development team availability and capability. Externally, topics such as market conditions, a competitor’s features, or technological and design trends are of importance.  

Taking the above topics into account, the PM then formulates a product vision and successive roadmap that aims at maximizing the value of said product.

Generally, the further a PM moves up the career ladder (typically roles such as the Chief Product Officer or Head of Product), the more his work is focused on setting an overall vision across all products, managing the different PM’s, as well as aligning with the other leadership on key initiatives. The details are mostly dependent on the size, complexity, and products that the organization creates.

In our digitally dominated world, product management is often seen as an accelerator to further one’s career and climb the corporate ladder. Examples of former PM’s turned CEO include the likes of Steve Jobs, Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google), or Kevin Systrom (Founder and former CEO of Instagram), just to name a few.

Product Manager Skillset

The beauty of product management is grounded in the fact that no two roles are the same. Oftentimes, the details and specific tasks of the role are highly dependent on the structure of the organization, its business model, the types of products it offers, or simply its understanding of agile concepts.

As such, pretending that there is a single set of skills every PM must obtain wouldn’t do the role any justice.

Nonetheless, in my experience, there are several key abilities that every PM should bring to the table if he/she wants to succeed. These include:

  • Interpersonal skills, i.e. the ability to influence stakeholders, understand their problems and needs, while being able to communicate it in an understandable manner
  • Business and strategic oriented thinking, for instance, knowing what market conditions are currently present, who the biggest competitors are, or what consumers currently demand
  • A sound technical understanding of the product that is being developed (and no, you don’t need any coding skills)
  • Design and user experience knowledge
  • The ability to ruthlessly prioritize
  • Analytical skills, for instance, when retrieving and interpreting data, evaluating user feedback, or tracking progress (e.g. velocity during a Sprint)
  • Finally, being a hard worker, because let’s admit it, you’re going to put in a lot of hours

For a more in-depth analysis, feel free to read through this genius piece of content. 

What Is A Business Analyst?

A business analyst (BA), as the name indicates, is someone who analyzes a company or department. Their purpose is to document underlying processes, systems, roles, and responsibilities and derive (multiple) solutions to improve the status quo. 

While each BA role is different, depending on the company and stakeholders that must be dealt with, some overlaps do exist. Common responsibilities therefore include:

  • Analyzing processes and systems. The BA looks at all currently existing processes and/or systems, their purposes, time of execution, stakeholders involved, etc.
  • Specifying requirements. The BA specifies the requirements that need to be implemented. This is based on data analysis, stakeholder interviews, on-site visits, and so forth. BAs may even be responsible for designing certain processes and scenarios, or at the very least, communicates those requirements to the person in charge.
  • Validating proposals. The BA must validate all of the suggestions made with both internal and outside stakeholders. This helps to ensure that the proposals solve a real business need, don’t harm any stakeholder or department, and are in compliance with existing laws. Depending on the scale of the project, validation may occur on a departmental level and reach as far as executive boards.

Some BA’s may even be responsible for managing the execution of proposals (i.e. project management), hiring the talent for project execution, or setting up testing scenarios after development completion. 

BA’s work in literally every industry that possesses a certain level of processes, stakeholders, and ultimately complexity. Some of the most common industries include banking, government, insurance, consulting, telecommunication, logistics, or industrial manufacturing. 

Business Analyst Skillset

As outlined above, the responsibilities of a BA are fairly diverse and involve interactions with many different types of stakeholders.

Naturally, this means that the BA must be proficient in a varied set of skills while wearing multiple hats at the same time.

The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), which offers one of the world’s leading certifications for BA’s, defines the following skills as essential to possess:

  • Understanding of how to retrieve and analyze data
  • Process analysis and modeling, i.e. via flowcharts or dataflow diagrams
  • Stakeholder analysis, i.e. defining roles and responsibilities of each individual
  • Oral and written communication skills, i.e. educating stakeholders on requirements and findings or facilitating workshops on process changes
  • Knowhow of organizational structure and the (wider) market it operates in
  • Detail orientation
  • Requirements engineering
  • Cost-benefit analysis

In more senior positions, decision-making skills, knowing how to manage employees, or negotiating abilities (e.g. when talking to potential new vendors) are additional skill requirements a BA would need to possess.

Similarities Between A Product Manager And Business Analyst

Now that we have a brief overview of what each role is about, let’s dive deeper into what both of these occupations have in common.

Being a jack of all trades. At heart, both the BA and PM have to wear multiple hats during the day. Whether it’s talking to stakeholders, noting down requirements or feature requests, or prioritizing on execution – either role demands a wide array of skills.

Laser focus. The PM is the owner of the product, and as such responsible for maximizing its value. He does so by solely focusing on either one product or one aspect of the product. For instance, PM’s at Facebook are split up between product features like the feed, groups, or ads.

The BA, on the other hand, oftentimes has one area of expertise that he or she brings to the table. They then drive the improvement of business processes in specific industries. Oftentimes, this is because the industry of focus has high regulatory requirements and thus requires specialist knowledge. Example industries that BA’s are focused on include banking or insurance.

Collaborative. Being constantly surrounded by stakeholders, team members, and sometimes customers, makes both the BA and PM role highly collaborative. Talking to these parties allows them to gauge demand for a product idea, figure out the status-quo, or listen to the problems of their stakeholders.

Data-driven and visual. Both BA’s and PM’s heavily utilize data to support their decision making. The data is then oftentimes supported by the usage of charts or mockups.

The PM may utilize both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data are insights such as click-through-rates, the average time a user spends on a page, or how fast the platform loads. Qualitative data may stem from user interviews or usage tests. That data is then used as input to design mockups or present user data in a visual manner (e.g. through heatmaps).

BAs, on the other side, utilize data to analyze company processes to extrapolate associated costs, times, or parties involved. The usage of visuals such as flow charts or architecture designs helps to convey the BA’s message when presenting to internal stakeholders and suggesting improvements.  

Differences Between A Product Manager And A Business Analyst

Interestingly, the BA and PM positions respectively have a fair share of overlap in terms of responsibilities and skills. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that quite a few BA’s go on to pursue careers in product management.

But romantics aside, there remain clear distinctions between the two. The bullet points below are my humble attempt to name a few of those.

Internal vs. external focus. In product management, we look at what’s happening both within as well as outside of the company (i.e. market developments or shifts in customer preferences). Only if we take all relevant factors into account (while considering limitations such as budgets and engineering capacity), can we maximize product output.

On the other hand, BA’s are oftentimes only concerned with improving the internal processes of a specific organization. They consider roles (and their responsibilities), the tools that are used, time consumption for any given process step, and associated cost. The goal is then to find inefficiencies within the value chain and either eliminate them or decrease time and money spend.

Level of decision-making power. The PM is responsible for maximizing the value of the product that he or she manages. As such, the PM sets the strategic and tactical direction, for instance of what features to build.

Meanwhile, BA’s are oftentimes only handing out data and recommendations to more senior staff. They list down associated costs and benefits, name involved stakeholders, and provide multiple scenarios to pursue. A manager, executive, committee, or board would then make the decision itself.

Maximization vs. minimization. As stated above, a PM often looks at maximizing the value of a given product. Said value maximization would then translate into more users and higher revenues (without necessarily decreasing cost).

Contrary to that, BA’s often seek to minimize the cost and time associated with a given process. They try to uncover inefficiencies and provide multiple scenarios to fix them.

Hi folks, Viktor checking in! Years of experience in various tech-related roles have led me to start this blog, which I hope provides you with as much enjoyment to read as I have writing the content.