Should Business Analysts Become Product Managers?
Product management has been around for decades.
However, the recent rapid adoption and reframing of internal applications as “products” to support agile transformation, means that the demand for experienced product managers is much greater than the supply. I made the shift from business analysis to product management about a decade ago (specifically, managing products aimed at business analysts), and I’ve found it to be a challenging and rewarding role. It can also be a stressful one. Many business analysts have the skills and attitude needed to succeed in a product management job, but it demands that we learn new skills and develop a different mindset.
Many BAs come into projects after the business case is written and the general form of the solution has been chosen. BAs make recommendations as the project progresses, but those things are ultimately owned by the project sponsor. That’s not true for product managers. PMs are ultimately accountable for the success or failure of their products, and will have to justify every investment of time and effort against the competing resource needs of other products.
Even if you take over a product that’s already in the market, you’re going to be held accountable for its future success. Think about every feature and consider whether it’s worth it from a business perspective. Consider whether existing features do the job, or whether they should be modified or even removed.
Get into the room with the sponsor and make the case for the capabilities you believe will best help them achieve their goals. You need to be ready to own those decisions yourself. You need to articulate the business need, connect a proposed solution directly to it, and persuade other stakeholders that your solution is the right one. And yes, I wrote your solution. You own it, even though you’ll likely have to convince gatekeepers that you’re taking it in the right direction.
BAs are used to solving problems inside a company. Those problems are often very complicated, requiring you to bring together diverse stakeholders to find a solution, but at least all the stakeholders are inside the company and you can talk to them (well, at least in principle). A product manager doesn’t get to do that. As a PM, your customers are external. You can and should talk to as many of them as possible, and if your company has a good market research team, you may have a decent idea of what they want, but you’ll always be working with less information than you’d get as a BA and you must get used to implementing ideas that represent your best guess about what they need.
On top of that, you’ll always be dealing with competitors. If you have a great idea, they might develop a copycat product that leverages your work and puts their own spin on it. You must make sure that your product offers something unique that appeals to your customers, figure out what needs they have that your company can meet more effectively than its competition, and use that as the basis for an overall product strategy. Be ready to adjust your course as much as you need to and prepare for constant change.
Think of your product as a business of its own. Product Managers are often described as “mini-CEOs”, and while I think the comparison’s often overblown, this is the grain to truth in it. You must understand your product’s value proposition, what makes it unique, and constantly look for ways to enhance the value it’s delivering for both your company and for your customers.
If you’ve decided that this is something you’d like to do, you must find opportunities to get into PM work. Here are a few concrete steps you can take while working as a BA to make that transition.
- Find chances to work with UX professionals and your company’s sales and marketing teams. They’ll be some of your key partners as a PM, so understand what they do and why. If you need to, get some training in these areas. You don’t have to be an expert in these areas, but you need to know enough to know when it’s being done well.
- Work on customer-facing projects. You need to connect your job to work that drives revenue for your company and learn how to find those opportunities to change a product to drive growth or improve retention.
- Engage with business cases and project sponsors. Do you understand how the project you’re working on will increase revenue, avoid costs, or improve service, and what the specific targets are for it? Can you explain how your requirements support those goals? A PM shouldn’t be putting anything into a product without being able to explain why it’s there and how it will help.
If product management is something you’re interested in, business analysis is a great place to start from. You already have extensive experience working with stakeholders across your enterprise to develop a shared vision for a solution, translating their needs into requirements, and working with developers to implement them in software. You’ve also developed an in-depth understanding of the industry sector you work in. These are all excellent qualities in a potential product manager.
The greatest difference between business analysis and product management is that you’ll have to take responsibility for aligning everything you do to the value proposition of your product. You’ll be expected to drive the needed business outcomes whether or not you have the authority and resources you want. Even so, your product may succeed or fail in the market for reasons beyond your control. But you get to execute on your vision rather than someone else’s. If that idea appeals to you, then product management is the natural next step in your career.