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: Technical Skills

Last week, I listed a few books that I recommend for developing people skills. Next week, I’ll close out the series with a list of books on developing business acumen. But this week’s list is about technical skills.

PMI Talent TriangleThe phrase “technical skills” means different things to different people. A programmer, an industrial welder, an aircraft engine mechanic, and a pharmacist each have their own technical skill sets, and their own courses of study and reference books. I’ve collected a short list of books that I’d recommend to a practicing project manager or someone who aspires to that role, to help develop what I would consider technical skills for our domain.

Business Mathematics

Business math skills as foundational to much of what we do as project managers. From analysis to presentation to decision making, our ability to “do the math” is assumed. I won’t recommend that you aspire to the skill set of an engineer (or an actuary, for that matter), but good project managers are both literate and numerate; an MBA skill set is a good target. These two books cover the basic stuff. Once you realize how much you’ve forgotten, you’ll likely want to go deeper. And you should.

Schaum’s Outline of Basic Business Mathematics by Eugene Don and Joel Lerner. If the mere thought of doing math makes you queasy, start at the beginning. The first two chapters are a review of middle and high school topics, but after that, it becomes about payroll, depreciation, interest and discount, annuities, stocks and bonds, buying and selling, and insurance.

Introductory Statistics by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean. This book was designed for a first course in statistics, for students majoring in fields other than math or engineering. I just downloaded the Kindle version for free, and the table of contents maps pretty well to the book I still have from the intro course I took in the 1970’s.

Data Visualization and Presentation

Every complex bit of information you need to explain to an audience, where in person or in print, benefits from thoughtful presentation.

Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Presentation Design by Nancy Duarte. A classic. Her TED talk on the secret structure of great talks, incorporating as-is and to-be into a presentation, is also worth your time.

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter About Visual Information by Alberto Cairo. A bit lightweight, but a good introduction to visualizing data and presenting information to decision makers.

Excel Dashboards and Reports for Dummies by Michael Alexander. I’m not a fan of the “For Dummies” books, but this one gets the job done. Once you learn to leverage functions into complex formulas in Excel, a thousand ideas will present themselves.


You don’t need to be a ninth-cloud turban and diaper guru on MS Project, Excel, or Visio to be a successful project manager, but these are the tools I’ve used the most, and I work at mastering them.

Microsoft Project Do’s and Don’ts: The Definitive Guide to Jumpstart Your Project by Sam Huffman. I’ve read over a dozen books on MS Project and I even wrote one. This one is the best I’ve ever read.

Microsoft Excel 2019 Data Analysis and Business Modeling by Wayne Winston. This is the sixth edition; I had the second but left it to a colleague. It’s an excellent reference book. Some of the later topics are a bit “out there,” but you don’t have to read the whole book—just the parts that resonate.

Microsoft Visio Advanced – A Step by Step Visual Guide by Richard Walters and Karim Dastgir. Lots of screen shots with not a lot of text. I use Visio for a lot of chores, from block diagrams to flow charts to hierarchy charts. This book goes much, much deeper into tools and techniques than I normally use, but my interests are not yours.

Design and Development

I was tempted to add several more books to this list, but my goal for this series was brevity.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover. Designing products that attract repeat customers. You’ve probably seen this book on other lists, for good reason.

The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition by Don Norman. Not just about how people interact with user interfaces, but how they think about the things they want to do. A true classic—one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it at least four times in the last 25 years.

The Project Manager’s Bookshelf: People Skills

I used to see a lot of project management thought leaders write about what they called soft skills. They meant things like Emotional Intelligence, communication, driving change, fostering collaboration, and so on. At some point, they realized that those things are hard. I prefer the term people skills, which isn’t specific enough for some, but it facilitates grouping knowledge and skills into three broad areas:

  • People skills
  • Technical skills
  • Business acumen

A lot has been written about these topics, and a lot of recommendations have been made in the SEO-oriented format of Top Ten Books on XXX to Read Before You Get Out of Bed. This is the first of a series of posts that will recommend a few books that you might not have seen on more click-worthy lists.


Developing Yourself and Others

Collaboration and Culture

Next week, I’ll make some reading recommendations for developing your technical skills. No, I’m not suggesting you become a programmer. More like the classes you wish you had signed up for when you were still trying to decide on your major.