The Project Manager’s Bookshelf: Business Acumen

PMI Talent TriangleI began this series with a few books that I recommend for developing people skills, then followed up with a list of books on technical skills. This week focuses on developing business acumen, closing with books on procurement and basic business law.

Project management is a business function, even if you’re managing software development or moving your internally hosted enterprise applications to the cloud. Business acumen is a bit like Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on pornography—hard to define, but you know it when you see it. There are a few foundational knowledge areas that support development of acumen, and I’ve covered some of them here. But you also need to read business news—I like The Economist for general content on the business environment, but also find a source that focuses on your industry. Read your company’s financial reports and communications to investors, as well as Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends Report. And ask your boss’s boss what she reads.

Finance and Accounting

If you have an undergraduate or graduate business education, you can safely skip this section. For everyone else, this is a vocabulary and an understanding of processes that you need to acquire, even if you don’t completely master it.

Accounting: A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Financial & Managerial Accounting by John Kent. If you’ve never taken any accounting course, at least get familiar with the vocabulary of financial and management accounting. This is a very basic intro.

Financial Statements: A step-by-Step Guide to Understanding and Creating Financial Reports Third Edition by Thomas Ittelson. You need to be able to understand and ask questions about your company’s finances. This book will introduce you to the income statement, cash flow statement, and balance sheet.

Discounted Cash Flow Modeling for Project Financing: A Step-by-Step Instruction by Monique Young.  Good coverage of a moderately complex topic, although the author needs to be introduced to a good editor. Focus is how to implement a model in Excel. Less than $5.00 in Kindle version.

Strategy and Competition

Project managers are given the responsibility for implementing business strategy. Not every project is strategic, but if you aspire to manage those high-visibility, career-making strategic projects, you need to understand the nature of competition and how business strategy is developed to compete in complex markets.

Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors by Michael E. Porter. Explains the three generic strategies—lowest cost, differentiation, and focus—and shows how competitive advantage links to profitability.

Business Strategy: A Guide to Effective Decision-making by Jeremy Kourdi. This is a bit basic, but it’s well-written, as you’d expect from The Economist. From understanding what strategy is to how strategies are developed, to implementation—where project managers come into the picture. Lots of brief examples, not detailed enough to be called case studies, but still illustrative.


Every organization delivers products or services, and most deliver both. The means and channels of marketing has evolved dramatically in the last two decades, and a large part of business acumen is understanding how the relationship between the organization and it’s customers is initiated, developed, and maintained.

Customer Centricity, Second Edition by Peter Fader. The customer is not always right, although the right customer is always right. Fader gave us permission to focus on the customers whose business is profitable for us and send the rest somewhere else. Lots of examples, success stories, and a few horror stories.

Social Media Marketing Mastery 2020: 3 Books in 1 by Robert Miller. These three books cover branding and how to be an influencer through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and how to “Win followers and influence millions” using Instagram. Welcome to the third decade of the 21st century.

Procurement and Business Law

I am not an attorney. But from years of experience in procurement and contract negotiation, I’ve come to appreciate the value of a basic understanding of business law in formulating good questions that attorneys can answer.

How to Write an RFP and Manage an RFP Project by E.B. Diamond. A guide to preparing a request for proposal and managing the competitive bidding process. Note that this presents a commercial point of view; government agencies will have a detailed and usually rigorous process for procuring goods and services. As much about project management as it is about preparing RFP’s.

Business Law by Robert W. Emerson. Part of the Barron’s Business Review series, this covers US law. If you’ve never taken any kind of business law course, this is a decent self-study text. That said, at 974 pages, it isn’t an easy read. The first three chapters introduce a lot of history and vocabulary. Definitely read chapters 4, 5, and 8 on contracts, and after that, you should skip around to the topics that matter to you.

In Closing

I’ve suggested books on a wide range of topics in this series. While I don’t expect anyone to read all of them, I hope this series has led you to think about how these knowledge areas fit into your personal development plan.

The Project Manager’s Bookshelf: Business Acumen
Article Name
The Project Manager’s Bookshelf: Business Acumen
I began this series with a few books that I recommend for developing people skills, then followed up with books on technical skills. Now I’ll close with a list of books on developing business acumen.
The Practicing IT Project Manager LLC