How to Grow Your Business Awareness to Be a Better Project Manager

In this article, you will learn practical ways to develop your business awareness at work so that we can better understand the broader environment. These strategies will put you ahead of other professionals who never spend any time considering the big picture.

Defining Business Awareness

To thrive as a successful professional, your business awareness capabilities need to be developed to a high degree. Why? According to the Project Management Salary Survey published by the Project Management Institute, the median salary for project managers in the United States is over $100,000. At that pay level, executives expect you to bring a big picture perspective to the organization. While delivering on time remains valuable, it is not enough.

You will learn about the three dimensions of business awareness in this article:

  1. The Foundation Skills: Acquiring and developing executive and management skills provide the foundation for business awareness. These are skills to develop through study, experience, reflection and other means.
  2. Internal Knowledge: Business awareness also requires the right content and the ability to distinguish relevant data from noise. We will cover how to access this information internally at your organization.
  3. Scanning the Broader Environment: Looking for information and trends in the broader community gives you the ability to add tremendous value, especially if you can translate outside developments into project opportunities.

When you put this article’s concepts and resource into action, you will no longer be surprised by executives who cut your project budget or other changes. Your improved business awareness will give you the ability to anticipate changes in the environment and take proactive action. While we can’t predict the future, we can use business awareness knowledge to forecast likely developments and prepare for them.

Business Awareness Foundation:

Understanding Decisions and Money at Your Organization

The foundation of business awareness is your ability to observe and communicate regarding pressures, opportunities and other factors that influence your projects. For example, the ability to read between the lines when your company releases a statement from the CEO about the company’s financial results is one skill to develop. Drawing out assumptions and objections during meetings is another business awareness skill.

In most large organizations, there are unwritten rules that govern how business success and failure are discussed. These concepts and rules can be discovered with the following practices.

  1. Observe Senior Management’s Goals: Many projects depend on the support of senior executives and managers for funding, approval and other forms of support. Therefore, project managers must pay close attention to these influential people. For example, look for patterns in messages form executives (e.g., increased concern with foreign competition or frustration with the slow pace of innovation at the organization). Understanding the concerns of the top leaders will better help you to relate your project to their goals.
  2. Analyze Patterns For Decision Making: Public companies (and many other large organizations) regularly build processes to ensure that money and other resources are effectively allocated. Knowing the official procedures is a starting point, but it is not enough. For example, well-informed project managers will ask their colleagues about projects that have recently been funded (and those that have been declined). This type of analysis is particularly important when major decisions are subject to a committee vote.
  3. Learn The Basics of Your Organization’s Financial Health: Financial statements are written according to a set structure that can be difficult to understand. There’s no need to become an accountant in order to gain insight from these reports. Specifically, look to understand trends in the organization’s revenue (e.g., how does this year’s sales revenue compare to last year?) and profit (e.g., are profits increasing or decreasing?). A company enjoying rapid profit growth is more likely to be interested in high risk and high reward projects compared to a company suffering from losses. Tip: If your company is publicly traded on the stock market, you can find financial reports (annual and quarterly) on the investor relations section of your company’s website.

The above three principles serve as an excellent foundation for business awareness. Building up this knowledge takes you far beyond the day-to-day concerns of your project or program. Acquiring this knowledge simply takes 10 to 20 minutes per day to reflect on decisions, read reports and ask thought-out questions. Business awareness is achieved by steady application of these habits.

The Broader Context: Understanding Your Peers and Competitors
No organization operates in a vacuum unaffected by the decisions and activities of other organizations. In the private sector, competitors and innovation apply constant pressure on your company’s existence. In the public sector, one faces pressure from the changing priorities of the electorate and other factors. Let’s explore how understanding industry makes you a more effective project manager.

  1. State of the Industry: Every industry has a market structure, trends and practices that need to be understood. To build your business awareness, learn about your organization’s top competitors, discover your company’s position (e.g., is your company a leader in innovation or a customer service specialist?) and related factors. Consulting firms often publish useful reports on various industries–refer to the resources section of this article for specific suggestions.
  2. Look for Innovation Ideas: Monitoring your immediate competitors and the wider business environment is an excellent way to improve your business awareness. For example, Apple has successfully created a line of retail stores that are well designed and highly profitable. For professionals in the retail industry (or high-end customer goods sector generally), there is much to learn from studying Apple’s success.
  3. Discover Recognition, Awards and Excellence: Learning from top performers and organizations is an excellent way to improve your business awareness. For example, the Globe & Mail newspaper has an annual ranking of brokerage services–important reading for those in the financial services industry. Likewise, awards and rankings from publication such as Consumer Reports and the Chamber of Commerce help us to identify organizations that are winning in today’s marketplace.
  4. Understand Emerging Threats: Change is a constant reality for every organization, and part of change includes potential threats. Professionals with highly developed business awareness skills are able to see threats on the horizon before their organizations are harmed. Honing your sense of threat detection requires reading widely in your industry and maintaining an active network.


External Business Awareness Resources

Staying informed and up to date on new developments poses significant challenges. After all, cultivating business awareness is usually an activity we develop as a supplement to our careers. Fortunately, you can maintain your broader business awareness capabilities with an hour or two a week of activity.

Online Resources

Creating a comprehensive catalog of online resources goes beyond the scope of today’s article. However, we can cover a few key resources that will make a significant difference:

  1. Google alerts: This free service will send you email alerts every time a given search term occurs in the news. Get started by setting up an alert based on your company’s name (and perhaps one or two key competitors).
  2. Large newspapers: For the foreseeable future, large newspapers such as The New York Times, Wall St Journal and The Times remain valuable resources. If you have limited time, focus your reading on the business section.
  3. Consulting firm reports. Several consulting firms regularly publish “state of the industry” reports that offer a helpful overview of an industry’s problems and opportunities. For example, PWC publishes an annual report on Canadian banks. LEK Consulting publishes a report on the retail industry.
  4. The Economist: I consider The Economist to be the world’s business magazine with outstanding coverage of the world’s political and financial affairs. No publication is perfect, but this is one of the best on the market. If your organization works with customers and suppliers in a variety of countries, there’s no good reason to skip reading The Economist.



Developing Your Network

Your network of contacts at your organization and other organization provide invaluable insights. However, most people are preoccupied with their own affairs so it is up to you to start the conversation. Here are a few practical suggestions to reinvigorate your network:

  1. Associations: Most (if not all) people reading this article are members of the Project Management Institute. To get the most out of your association memberships, commit to attend a certain number of events per year in person. Relationships developed in person take the most effort and tend to be the most valuable.
  2. Staying in touch: Did you know that many of the best sales professionals and entrepreneurs make daily networking a priority? For example, several entrepreneurs I know commit to send five staying-in-touch emails to people in their network each day. These efforts are simple to do yet many people neglect to do it.

Whether you are attending events or keeping in touch with your contacts, listen for two types of clues. First, seek to learn what people are excited about (personal or professional). Second, look to learn about problems and pain. After all, helping friends solve problems is not only generous, but it helps you stay nimble at solving problems before they hit your organization.

By: Bruce Harpham

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