10 reasons why Prince2 is not even close to ‘best practice’

So who exactly makes the following claim?

The current custodians of Prince2 ® (the UK Government’s ageing (1) PM Method), who look after it on their behalf by virtue of winning a contract from which they plan to benefit from, state on their website that Prince2 ® is “Global best practice”. That is quite a claim.

This is a personal view (backed up the references in the links below). However, it’s from someone who has been involved in projects all his career (inside and outside the public sector), who believes that Prince2 ® (as written) has never been and even more importantly especially today, is a very long way from ‘best practice’ let alone Global best practice.

Here is the evidence why it is not true:

The biggest piece of evidence to support this is the track record of project delivery across the entire UK public sector (2) where it has formed the basis of the management of their projects since 1996. In the intervening years since then, the track record is staggeringly poor. The countless instances of huge delays, massive cost overruns and cancelled projects are legendary and epic. Vast numbers of people in the UK public sector have been trained in the method over the last two decades. Where was all this ‘global best practice’ while all this was happening?

Here are our top 10 reasons why it’s not even good, let alone ‘best practice’:

  • Its legacy is UK public sector and much of the organisational culture of UK public sector is totally ingrained in the method in a way that the much of the private sector would never employ. The best example is the core members of a project board. Senior supplier in, your own project manager, out (3). Frankly, that is ludicrous. The supplier often has a huge vested interested in the project continuing at times when clearly it should not.
  • One of the biggest single factors that influences successful project delivery is strong project leadership.  The method states that project managers are only there to report to others who are responsible for the project and recommends only doing so when it is absolutely necessary, (i.e. the project is suffering serious issues) literally stating  “they are very busy senior people” (4).  When referring to the responsibility of project managers, the P’2 manual continually uses the term ‘day-to-day management’ of the project. This is staggeringly poor and is totally the wrong message to give to Project Mangers and again would not be tolerated in much of the private sector.
  • Budgeting and cost management – the P’2 manual has whole sections on: “plans, risk, organisation, controls etc.” and none on developing effective project budgets and applying cost and financial management to projects.  In fact, it is astonishingly light throughout the whole 265 pages of the method when it comes to even mentioning ‘cost’. There are ‘management products’ focusing on everything you could imagine but there are zero focusing on cost.  Given the vast overspends on many projects where P’2 is used, it would not be unfair to say this mirrors their lack of focus on budget and cost management (5).  Additionally, P’2 training courses mirror what’s in the manual and exam. This is a major omission from the method and often leads to a complete lack of financial controls on major projects (often costing hundreds of millions of pounds or even more).
  • It is woefully light on the fundamentals of what is key to delivering successful projects. P’2 is heavy on items such as Business Case etc. (the infamous ‘justification’ of projects – frankly a terrible term in itself), but when you look for how you plan and actually deliver projects successfully, it is lacking. One of the best examples would be to test the delivery strategy of a project against risk. P’2 does not even mention delivery strategy, and great numbers of projects would never even start if such a test was properly applied.
  • There is a stated underlying assumption throughout the method that ‘once underway‘, projects ‘go according to plan(6).  Anyone who has been remotely close to the world of projects knows nothing could be further from the truth. Why is this important?  It leads to the method making major mistakes around responsibilities (project boards-v-project managers) and processes (management by exception) if your aim really is best practice.
  • Management-by-exception – Prince2 says the project manager must report an exception to the project board when they expect the project to exceed an agreed tolerance.  In principle, this sounds potentially OK. In practice it does two very unproductive things: a) project managers are being given the wrong message (project success is not their responsibility, they are just there to report to the project board), and b) management by exception is fine for steady state operations, (where the idea of tolerance comes from) but is very dangerous on projects. Methods such as Agile require daily conversations involving the whole team around impediments to making progress. They don’t wait until your project is already out of tolerance (i.e. out of control !) before they initiate such discussions via a monthly or quarterly project board meeting. Furthermore, Prince2 processes for managing significant issues typically achieve very slow decision-making at times when the opposite is required, and in practice (not theory) result in delayed (or even suppressed) disclosure of bad news. Effective project managers recognise quickly when there is a need to re-prioritise within the goals of the project and do so without delay.  They do not have to wait for the cycle times involved in most (real-world) project board meetings.
  • P’2 is more a method to initiate projects – not to manage or deliver them. It does not address (as demonstrated by the APM’s PMQ for Qualified Prince2 Practitioners ( 7 ))  many fundamental PM disciplines; such as defining requirements and developing solutions, how to measure progress on a project, how to manage performance in relation to progress, schedule etc.  It just requires mechanisms for project managers to highlight issues to others for resolution or decision making! Sound like a quick process? Sound like it will be successful? Sound like it encourages the type of behaviours and skills you want to see among professional project managers?
  • P’2 going Agile? The two ‘methods’ could not be more different. They are at the opposite ends of the spectrum; others warn this is more like mixing oil and water and you can’t be half Agile. Agile is about flexibility, Prince2 is about ‘control. Agile uses regular face-to-face communication, constant (daily) participation of the Product Owner in the team, daily reviews of progress and minimum of process and paperwork.  Prince2 is a predictive form of defining and planning projects while Agile is iterative.  The two could not be more different. While we do agree that methods like Scrum do not provide all you need on a project, trying to marry up Agile philosophies and Prince2 is at best questionable and in reality never going to work. If you are going to still remain Agile, you would have to drop most of the elements of P’2 espcially the way almost everything is managed. Probably the biggest single difference with Agile is self-organised teams, where decision-making is embedded in the team.  P’2 is hierarchical command and control, and all key decision making is definitely outside of the day-to-day team (as the method constantly reminds you). This results in slow and cumbersome (8 ). Sound like Agile? More than anything else Agile is about flexibility; Prince2 is about control. They are oil and water.
  • What does the exam actually mean, and hence the qualification? It’s an ‘open book’ qualification (meaning you take the P’2 manual with you into the Practitioner exam!). All Prince2 training courses will show you (above all else throughout the whole week) is how pass the exam by ‘tabbing up’ the entire Prince2 manual, so that during the exam, you can quickly find the answers to all the questions. Astounding.  Unsurprisingly, very few people do not pass. The question has to be asked, “what does this really achieve?”.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, in all the years of us doing business, we have never encountered an organisation which had implemented significant amounts of what is in the method – they always say they have a P’2 type PM method, which has given rise to the term ‘PINO’ (Prince2 in name only).

 

When P’2 was modified in 2009, the ability to tailor the method in any way you like was introduced.  This does mean you can if you wish ignore any of the above.  However, the items above are so ingrained throughout the method, if you agree they are issues why would you possibly use the method as a starting point and even more important why would you expose people to training based on this method?

Perhaps even worse still, this is the method that underpins the management of all UK Government projects, the results of which hit the headlines routinely for all the wrong reasons, most especially for massive cost overruns, while often failing to meet user’s basic needs.

Notes/ References:

1 – Prince2 2017 is planned for release.  Although not yet available, enough has been published to confirm the method is staying exactly the same – the 2017 update relates only to how the method is described in the manual.

2 – This document sets out the vision for future project management and contains some excellent ideas.  Sadly what it does not do (or perhaps admit) is to trace the source of past failings to include why some aspects (e.g. cost) on major public projects have been managed so badly in the past. Prince2 has never addressed in any way, how to manage project cost and financial performance and how to add ‘control’ (projects in a controlled environment) to this most vital of elements.

3  – This comes from the culture where “only people of a similar (senior) level” meet together face-to-face to discuss things and it gets even worse. In this method, project managers are clearly not considered as senior people!

4 – this is an extract from the P’2 manual: “level of management required to make important decisions and commitments may be too busy to be involved in the project on a day-to-day basis” – compare this to item 8 above?

5 – on a recent assignment in one of the UK’s largest Central Government departments, we asked a simple question (face-to-face & individually), to all of the most senior people involved in their projects “who is responsible for managing project budgets”, and not one of them could offer any answer whatsoever.

6 – section 1.5.1 of the Manual

7 – Those with P’2 Practitioner status are only exempt for 26 of the 73 items that make up the syllabus of  APM’s PMQ (formerly APMP) project management qualification – which is the UK’s equivalent of PMI’s PMP ®

8 – Ever tried managing change to workscope in a Prince2 environment? At best it will be very slow and at worst it is such a challenge people literally won’t even try.

 

PRINCE2® is a registered trade mark of AXELOS Limited
PMP® is a registered trade mark of PMI (USA).

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  1. Sly Gryphon on April 13, 2017 at 1:17 am

    You seem to have misunderstood how tolerances work: “They don’t wait until your project is already out of tolerance (i.e. out of control !) before they initiate such discussions.”

    Neither does PRINCE2; you don’t report an exception after it has exceeded tolerances but, in your own words “when they expect the project to exceed an agreed tolerance”. Not after it has exceeded, but as soon as you predict it will, i.e. well before it actually does. If an impediment arises which you predict will cause tolerances to exceed, then you raise it as soon as the impediment arises (you don’t wait until after it is out of tolerance, or even to the next meeting).

    You also seem to misunderstand PRINCE2, e.g. you claim “far too many written reports”, but there is no statement in PRINCE2 that requires reports to be written; in fact we had our instructor recommend that verbal reports can be a lot more effective and efficient (written reports are rarely read). And no, raising an exception doesn’t have to be written either; as soon as the impediment above arises (that you predict will cause tolerances to be exceeded) the exception should be raised, and the quickest way is probably verbally.

    I agree that PRINCE2 may not necessarily be agile; stages may be a lot longer, but larger projects should have multiple so is definitely an iterative method. The manual recommends maximum detailed planning horizon of 3 months, so stages should be no longer than this; in comparison agile generally has an accepted maximum iteration length of 4 weeks. I would generally push for shorter stages for better management.

    You also seem overly concerned about senior control, when as you pointed out, PRINCE2 is management by exception. So long as the component is predicted to remain in tolerances then there is free reign (for either the project manager or delivery team). e.g. A particular stage may be expected to deliver 80 story points, but may have tolerances to deliver between 60 – 100; so long as the projected velocity remains within this band, there is no need for control.

    I do agree with you on one thing though, the exam is terrible. The pass mark is only 50% — to put that in context it means that if someone claims to be certified, then it could mean that half the things they say to do are actually wrong and not PRINCE2 at all, e.g. If an exam question was ‘Does PRINCE2 requires written reports?’, despite the answer being No, half the people who pass might believe and tell you Yes (they are wrong).

    • Kevin Lonergan on April 14, 2017 at 11:30 am

      Sly: with the greatest of respect I have not misunderstood a single aspect of the method.

      1. We have worked (in a hands-on fashion, not in a classroom) with many hundreds of project managers. To expect them to forecast, early, that a project is experiencing issues is optimistic at best. In the real world (not classroom) vast numbers of project managers will wait until the very last moment until they highlight a significant issue. Any method that exaggerates this issue by giving room (tolerance) to PMs is deeply flawed.
      2. Management by exception was conceived for steady-state operations where the expectation is that a process will usually happen a) as anticipated and b) within agreed parameters. Projects, could not be more different to this and the expectation and management process must reflect this. A great example is the daily review of progress and ALL issues found in approaches such as Agile.
      3. The majority of our comments relate to the fundamental responsibilities of project managers (in the best cases) and the muddle of responsibilities in a Prince2 world, between project managers and project boards, together with mechanisms like tolerance and management by exception and I will share a real world example from only last week to make my point. Literally last week I delivered a course in a classic (UK) Prince2 environment. Towards the end of the session, there was a discussion on the responsibilities of project managers towards the success of projects. A heated debate ensued, where a number of people argued very strongly that a project’s success was not the responsibility of the project manager. Staggering. I rest my case.
      4. Prince2 stages are not iterative – they are intended to be primarily linear stages of definition and development in the same way you would have in a Waterfall model. Agile is purely iterative – Prince2 is a predictive form of planning and managing projects and the two could not be more different (e.g. you don’t need a CCB in an Agile project as this is already in-built in the way projects are run).
      5. As far as combining Agile and Prince2 – Agile is about flexibility (above all else) and Prince2 is about ‘control’. Does that sound like a successful marriage? On top of that, as far as trying to manage a stage with say 80 or so story points via the concept of tolerance, all I can say is “good luck”. It may work, but if it does those mechanisms will not be the reason why.
      6. Regarding reports, I would take my comment even further on the bureaucratic nature of the method and emphasis on written reports and documents as demonstrated by this link here which lists 26 different Prince2 reports and templates.

  2. Ian on November 8, 2017 at 3:48 am

    G’day guys. I am a P2 Practitioner and also MSP. I have not used P2 for a long time because in my view it stems from industrial age thinking where predictability, control and hierarchy were appropriate for the type of work being done inside of controlled environments. Since we moved into the Knowledge/Information age, we have moved away from predictability, control and hierarchical structures and are now faced with unpredictability, internal and external intervention, uncertainty, globalization, interconnectedness, distributed stakeholders that are generally unaligned and pushing their own agenda. We certainly DO NOT deliver projects in ‘Controlled Environments’ any more. I used to like P2 and have developed an organisational methodology that used P2 for it’s structure for it’s ‘what to do’ filled in with the PMBOK processes for its ‘how to do’ characteristics. This worked extremely well but its limitations were reached when we could not overcome the complexity of the organisation and I was required to deliver project outcomes on time on budget using a method that was not designed for this type of delivery. Agile and P2 are completely contradictory in my view and I feel that before I go back to using P2, it will need to come into the Knowledge/Information age and stop focusing on controlled environments because I honestly cannot think of any of these at the moment unless you can deliver a project on an aircraft where everything is tightly controlled………

    • Kevin Lonergan on November 8, 2017 at 9:37 am

      Agile and P2 are completely contradictory in my view.…..” hallelujah !!

      I think you will be waiting a very very long time for P2 to go where you are suggesting. I would not hold you breath. For one reason, the true owners of the method have no appetite whatsoever for a P3 project. Furthermore, they would not know how either.

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