Why the Hybrid BA/PM is a bit like a Hybrid car

Does combining the roles of Business Analyst and Project Manager really give you the best of both worlds?

The Hybrid car is the present and future together... the best of both worlds… the torque, speed and silent eco-friendly progress of electric combined with the range-anxiety-busting qualities of traditional fuel.

But in reality, many Hybrid cars don’t do either thing particularly well. In fact some are less economical than a more polluting combustion engine car, if used in the wrong way.

And so it can be with the Hybrid BA/PM role within projects…

In my experience it’s been a common request from a project sponsor or management team to have someone who can fulfil both a Project Manager and a Business Analyst role. It’s easy to see why they would want this — both roles (ideally) are in place at a project start up, it seems to add value (saves money) and simplicity for the sponsor to have combined roles, and in theory each role complements the other: When you know the detail of the requirements of the project, you can better plan the details of the project and vice versa.

If your project is small and manageable, maybe particularly agile (sometimes code for slightly chaotic and progressing organically), this Hybrid role may work well. Practically it could mean that just one person could be 100% dedicated to a project (with a 50–50 or 60–40 split) rather than working on some other distracting project in parallel. If your organisation is small and lean, this role may also work.

But anything bigger than short-term or small scale, and the flaws begin to appear with the Hybrid role.

It’s fundamentally a challenge of depth vs. breadth.

For years I struggled with an analogy of how to explain it to people until one day I got @GraphicChange to draw it for me:

The PM view of a project

So, imagine your project is to use a team of people to dig holes in a field, from one side to the other (use your imagination…all projects take you on a journey from one place to another in some way).

Now, as a Project Manager you want to be above ground. You want to be looking across all of the hole diggers (workstreams) with your clipboard and seeing that:

  • the holes are being dug in the right place according to the map
  • the holes are spaced far enough apart and of similar depth that you make progress across the field
  • each hole digger is individually making progress
  • people are digging where it’s safe (nothing worse than falling into a hole of someone else’s making), etc.

But if you’re a Business Analyst, you actually want to be in the detail. You want to be down in one of the holes (maybe in several). You may even want to dig that hole deeper and deeper, exploring more as you go.

The BA view of a project

Meanwhile, you have no idea what’s happening above you. As a BA you need time to focus on the detail, to dig around a bit more, maybe even dig further than you should to figure out what’s really the problem your project’s trying to fix, before you pull yourself back up again to work with others to deliver solutions.

So imagine if you’re also the Project Manager? What’s happening above ground while you’re down in the tunnel? Who’s monitoring the other hole diggers? Who’s noticed that someone’s just dug in the wrong place, or got a bit obsessive about mithering a hole that’s now too big for purpose? Who’s telling people standing around that they should start on their next hole?

Worst of all, because you are down in the hole (that is now a full-blown tunnel) you can’t see the danger around you. You have no idea where to be digging, because you don’t have a Project Manager above you steering you according to the map. You also can’t see the risks that you have created yourself, that if just one person digs in the wrong place above, you’re done for!

The entire view of a project

So as tempting as it is to think it’s the simplest, most cost-effective solution to ask someone to be a Hybrid BA/PM, it’s unlikely that you’re really going to get the value for money that you think. (Just as with the hybrid car.) And it’s unlikely that the person themselves is going to be very satisfied with their role. Because crucially, not many people have both skillsets in equal measure to do both justice without impacting the other.

When I first presented and talked through this simple picture at a PMO conference in 2016, I had Project Managers from many different countries come up to me later and say variations of, “so that’s why I’ve always felt so stressed being both a PM and a BA in a project!” It had finally clicked into place for them. Many of them went back with a strong resolve to address this with their managers.

So what should you do if you’re being asked by a sponsor or manager to perform this dual role and you’re not sure it will work? Well, start by trying to understand their motivation. If they are not experienced in the project world, they may literally not understand the implications of what they’re requesting: for you to be in two places at once. It may be a sign that your organisation was once smaller and leaner and could deliver projects with PM/BA Hybrids. But if this role makes you stressed now, things have probably changed and the organisation has grown (whether in size or complexity). So maybe time to encourage the owners of the project world to start investing in dedicated Business Analysts?

Maybe start by showing them this picture (if they can cope with analogies/metaphors) and explaining to them the benefits of starting to separate out the roles. It will save time and money in the long term…not to mention your sanity.