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PMs and BAs - Would you Survive The Hunger Games

6 Strategies to Make the Relationship Work

By Susan Martin, Executive Vice President, Doreen Evans Associates

Walking out of the theatre this weekend my friends began philosophizing about the message of “The Hunger Games.” One friend talked about the degeneration of the social fabric. Another voiced her feeling that ultimately you can only depend upon yourself. Being an optimist I thought of a more uplifting message and one that most of us who work in the world of projects, outcomes, and budgets can understand.

In this newest Hollywood blockbuster, Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl, pairs up with Peeta Mellarkand and together they struggle to survive an annual reality show, “The Hunger Games.” They come to understand that the game is no joke and find they must depend on each other and work together, communicate and listen to one another, and identify and use each others’ strengths and skills to ultimately win and stay alive. This is a great message.

Living the Game

If you’ve ever worked on a large IT project, you’ve likely seen The Hunger Game scenario play out before you. You may be just working for project survival in the form of outcomes that meet the business needs, but you have a lot in common with our two young heroes. For example, you encounter and must deal with unexpected obstacles, you uncover self-interests that can derail even the best of plans, and you seek relationships within the team that help you rise above the seemingly daily complications.

The relationship that exists at the beginning of a project between the team’s project manager (PM) and its business analyst (BA) shares a number of characteristics of the connection between our two main characters at the start of the movie:
  • They are supposed to be on the same team sharing a common goal, but sometimes they don’t quite act that way 
  • Each plays a different role with both roles critical for success, but each may not be aware of this need  
  • With different strengths and skills, each trusts his or her own approach at the exclusion of the other’s 
  • Holding different perspectives, they look at their situation differently 
  • Communication is problematic
In The Hunger Games, survival is unattainable for both Katniss and Peeta until they finally truly collaborate. When they finally combine their efforts, they become far more successful than either one could have been alone. They work together and acknowledge each other’s strengths—be it begrudged, superficial, or temporary—and as a result they come away from the games a success.

The PM/BA Relationship Conundrum

In the PM/BA world, the relationship between the PM and BA might not be as life changing as The Hunger Games, but there is solid evidence that it is no less dysfunctional. How do we know? In 2010, the Standish Group published a follow up to their famous Chaos Report which showed that IT project failures are still the norm rather than the exception (only 16% of software development projects were “successful” in their 2010 survey, the worst result since the first Chaos Report was published back in 1994/1995). And, much the same as in 1994, the key factors causing project failures continue to be poor or missing requirements and changing requirements—the direct responsibilities of the BAs and PMs respectively. More than 15 years after the first Chaos Report called attention to these issues, why are we still experiencing the same problems and the same root causes? Let’s examine what we know about the relationship between PMs and BAs:

1. Same Team, Common Goal

Like Katniss and Peeta, PMs and BAs are assigned to work together on projects, but does that mean that they have the same goals? It seems that the BA wants to get the “right” project done, and the PM wants to get the project done “right.” In fact, if we take a quick look at some of the key responsibilities, we can see that PMs and BAs interests can diverge quickly. 

PMs tend to be very focused upon process. That means:
  • Bringing the project in on time, and making sure tasks meet the project plan schedule
  • Ensuring that the project management methodology is being followed and required document deliverables are produced and milestones reached
  • Ensuring that the budget is managed effectively and not exceeded
BAs, on the other hand, tend to be more focused on content. That means:
  • The correct stakeholders have been identified and consulted 
  • Requirements are well understood and documented as thoroughly and explicitly as possible
  • The proposed solution fits the organization, and delivers the expected results per the requirements specification
2. Two Roles, One Success

As the Standish Group survey reveals in detail, 84% of the time (in 2010) the PM and/or the BA got it wrong. So it stands to reason that at the start of an IT project, the PM and BA have the two most critical roles to the overall success of the project—getting the scope and requirements correct (BA), and putting a viable management framework around it (PM). Although their tasks are (for the most part) done separately, together they form the foundation of the project. If either gets their part wrong (especially at the beginning of a project), achieving project success will become an uphill battle that keeps getting steeper as time goes on.

3. Different Strengths and Skill

In The Hunger Games, Peeta is not the warrior. Katniss is the one who is brave and daring. But we find that each brings essential skills to the game. The same is true for PMs and BAs. PMs tend to be “drivers”—they push, they cajole, they use their powers of persuasion to meet dates and deliverables. But while it’s the PM’s job to ensure progress, it is the BA who has been hired to assist with the necessary thinking on behalf of management. BAs need to put a lot of thought into a given project and its business goals and how they affect the organization and their clients. Depending upon how far afield the questions take them, the analysis work may not fit neatly into the expected timeframes. This situation often results in a struggle—the PM wants to make the date, and the BA wants to get the right requirements.

4. Different Perspectives

BAs spend most of their time with the business people. This gives the BA great perspective on the pain points and opportunities of the current state, and helps motivate them to do a quality job on project requirements. The PM, on the other hand, is usually dealing directly with a different group of stakeholders, namely the Project Sponsor and a Steering Committee. Steering Committees, and the senior folks who populate them, usually want to laser in on metrics that relate to the project’s progress. They may not fully understand the project methodology or specific project objectives, but they understand the ultimate business goals especially as they relate to delivering on time and on budget. Each must come to understand what the other needs to accomplish—much like our heroes.

5. Communication is Key

At the end of the film when Katniss and Peeta began to truly communicate with each other, they became unstoppable. Given that most projects are done under very aggressive time constraints, PMs and BAs often, like our heroes, seem to talk “at each other” rather than “to” each other during the early stages of a project. For example, formal status meetings are usually not the best forum for discussing nuances or sensitive situations that involve project risk. If the PM and BA are not comfortable with each other, the relationship can be reduced to one of indifference, or worse, hostile action (or passive/aggressive inaction). And finally as we see with Katniss and Peeta, relationships often come with baggage that is carried over by other associations, projects, and scenarios that can infect an even easy project.

Real Change can Happen

Each project is a battle and the trophy at the end is a great outcome for the project. In fact, the relationship that the PM and BA forge is so important to the strength of the project and its overall outcome, as well as to future endeavors, that this critical relationship can’t be left to chance. In an ideal world, a project PM and BA:
  • Have worked together previously in a constructive manner 
  • Share a common understanding of project methodology and the requirements process and critical success factors 
  • Consider each other peers (as opposed to a hierarchical leader and subordinate role 
  • Have a deep understanding and appreciation of the other’s role and tasks 
  • Are comfortable communicating and negotiating with each other based upon mutual respect and trust
Some of these characteristics will be driven by the individuals involved; as everyone knows, you can’t force someone to respect another team member. But the bottom line is that the PM and BA need to have a robust relationship that can handle turbulence and disagreement in an open but respectful manner, and then be able to find common ground.

Given what we know about the importance of the relationship between the PM and BA, how can you help forge a successful team? There are six basic strategies you can employ:
  1. Train and cross training PMs and BAs on methodology and roles. This way each understands the responsibilities of the other and agrees on how to attain outcomes together.
  2. If possible, forge two-person teams of PMs and BAs who can work together more than once so they can get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. 
  3. Cultivate PMs and BAs who exhibit the best characteristics of their respective roles and advocate for them. Reward those who work collaboratively.
  4. Choose PMs and BAs who naturally understand the value of compromise and work actively together in managing projects’ risks.
  5. Pick professionals who over-communicate to ensure that nothing important gets missed. The best PM/BA teams don’t assume that the other understands specific project situations or issues.
  6. Finally, pay particular attention to the interdependencies between the PM and BA. One of the major strategic areas of overlap between the roles, for example, is the area of scope definition and management. BOTH the PM and BA should be deeply involved in discussions such as this which are deceptively straightforward sounding, but end up playing havoc on schedules and budgets. The PM may think that scope is “settled” early on and that a time and budget estimate can be made and adhered to on that basis; the BA knows that scope can change for very good reasons once a deeper exploration of the problem is underway.
At the end of The Hunger Game, Katniss and Peeta understand that despite great strides, they live within a flawed system thus the status quo continues. The audience is left wondering, how long will they have to struggle? The same is true in the world of PMs and BAs. Change toward strong PM and BA relationships is a process. But as individual professionals work together, depend on each other, communicate, and understand each others’ roles and responsibilities each project outcome will incrementally improve and it will be the business that is the true winner.

Susan Martin is Executive Vice President of Doreen Evans Associates, a professional services firm committed to business analysis excellence. A recognized leader in the business analysis profession, Susan works with DEA clients to improve business analysis practices and execute critical projects. You can reach her at smartin@doreenevans.com or simply call 617-482-4444.