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 by 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 important, especially today, is a very long way from ‘good practice’ let alone Global best practice.
Here is the evidence of 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?
Prince2 is a bloated bureaucratic method, littered with reports and totally light on real management, that contains some of the very worst practices around projects.
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 the UK public sector is totally ingrained in the method in a way that 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 staggeringly ludicrous. The supplier clearly has a huge vested interest in the project continuing at times when it ought to be evident 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 (but do not work on the project on a day-to-day basis) and recommends only doing so when it is absolutely necessary, (i.e. the project is suffering serious issues) because “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. All of this is staggeringly poor and is totally the wrong message to give to Project Managers 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 mention the word ‘cost’. There are ‘management products’ focusing on everything you could imagine but there are zero focusing on cost. Given the vast cost 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, such as planning. 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 deliver projects successfully in the method, it is very 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. By then, it is too late too often to mitigate the impacts of the issue as project managers wait for the response to their Exception report. Prince2 processes for managing significant issues typically achieve very slow decision-making at times when the opposite is required, and in practice (not theory) also results 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 long 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, scheduling and especially budget (5). It just requires 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 daily face-to-face communication around issues, decision-makers from the business working with the development team on a daily basis and a minimum of process and paperwork. Prince2 is the most bureaucratic (paperwork-heavy) example of project management there is. 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, especially 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 and being able to incorporate change quickly; Prince2 is about control and in P’2 introducing change is usually very slow and painful. 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 to 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 users’ basic needs.
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) of 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 from 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 work scope 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).