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Which Project Management Camp is Right? PRINCE2? Agile?

PRINCE2In the world of project management there are various labelled factions: the PMI crowd, the PRINCE2 crowd, the Agile crowd et.al. Well now there are the PRINCE2 Agile practitioners. Those people have a foot in both the “how to link projects to corporate approvals and direction” camp and the “how to run projects with technicians who use agile practices to create deliverables” camp.

A Marriage Made in Heaven?

Perhaps the question to answer is “Is this a marriage made in heaven?” or “a right proper guddle?*”! Probably the honest answer is neither but the balance is nearer heaven than guddle. Both PRINCE2 and Agile methods have significant, complementary, valuable insights.

Just isolate the keyword from each of my one line descriptions above –  “direction” and “delivery”. Surely every project’s twin key elements.

Hiding a Light Under a Bushel

The first thing I have to say is that PRINCE2’s strengths rarely come-across clearly from a PRINCE2 Practitioner exam course alone. There are a number of reasons.

First the time pressures to learn enough to be certified in a week reduces the opportunity for real world discussion.

Second an exam focus makes discussion of alternative steps, tools or opinions a dangerous thing. Passing is based solely on a syllabus that is absolutely focussed on the official manual.

The guiding principle is Don’t Confuse what are the ‘Right Answers’.

PRINCE2 Agile Improves PRINCE2 Immeasurable

Forget exams. As a purely pragmatic guide to good project delivery the PRINCE2 Agile manual goes a very long way towards replacing PRINCE2’s real-world dubious or weak-spots with Agile strengths.

PRINCE2 Agile also emphasises PRINCE2’s strength in a manner that is extremely compatible, even synergistic with Agile ways of working. While it is very well hidden in exam contexts PRINCE2’s use of {{Managing Product Delivery}} as sort of slot-in your favourite format for development activities has always been fully sympathetic to adding Agile product development methods.

Sad to be Exam Oriented

I lament; if only PRINCE2 Agile was offered as a stand-alone product without exam focus rather than an exam based qualification that requires that you hold another project management qualification (there are several that qualify you like IPMA, PMI as well as AXELOS) first then it would be more widely accessible and appealing.

The Mindset to be Business Nimble

What ‘Agile’ adds is the mind-set to be agile (small a) or perhaps a better phrase is business-nimble. PRINCE2 has an undeserved but terrible reputation for lack of nimbility (ok so that isn’t a word but you know what I mean. PRINCE2 is wrongly perceived to be heavy and bureaucratic).

To be nimble with PRINCE2 needs very little adjustment to embrace the agile mind-set. Before we explore the place where the two have the most struggle to integrate– the topic of organisation and thus the need for management – I’ll describe Agile and PRINCE2 Agile so you have a perspective on the landscape.

So What is Agile?

The challenge in describing Agile is that it is a mix of a number of (arguably each individually incomplete) elements. It is interesting to me that a Wicked Problem’s definition is “everyone has a different view and viewpoint shapes approach”. Seems prophetic with Agile where there are so many varying descriptions.

The Mix of Concepts that Shape Agile

Definitely Agile has a little Complex Adaptive Systems thinking; this is where the emergence problem and openness to adaptation solution comes from. There is lots of teaming type sociology; where ‘principles’ such as no management start.

There is generally a deeply engrained and rigid cyclic procedure based around short – so plannable – time constrained but scope flexible time-boxes; ironically approaches such as Scrum are hugely more prescriptive than PRINCE2 in this regard.

There are the principles of the Agile Alliance such as a useful result trumps having complete documentation, people communicate best when they can talk face to face and get smart people but realise making them follow rigidly enforced development practices is probably always dumb but especially so in volatile times. There are also roles such as process guru and road-block remover who keeps everyone aligned and focussed and moving, plus someone who is absolute determinant of value and priority who chooses what to be aligned on.

The whole is wrapped around a focus on PRODUCT development practices.

Agile’s Travails

To take the alternative perspective Agile struggles when the Product Owner is untrained and or lacks the political muscle to speak for the business and or when the organisation doesn’t know its direction but the project development team are traveling fast.

Agile struggles when the task calls for skills that the whole team doesn’t have or when the people are not a team, when the culture is blame based and or the management don’t participate and/or the management direct actions within the team.

It also struggles when management reduce the process guru’s authority to deal with progress blockers, or when the overheads of daily, pre- and post- sprint and release cycle activities are seen as too expensive to follow. Also when the development needs more people than can form a team and perhaps lastly when the problem isn’t well addressed by a piece-by-piece delivery approach.


PRINCE2 is much easier to describe.

It is a three layer communication and decision making structure that describes information formats, flows, sources and destinations and the resulting management actions required across three time-frames.

The layers are

  • Direct – set direction,
  • Manage – shepherd work within authority limits and
  • Deliver – do the technical stuff.

The three time-frames are Start, Middle and End. The middle is broken into time-boxes. Yes Timeboxes; exactly as Agile says. PRINCE2 calls them Management Stages but they are time-limited divisions of the project where authority to proceed is granted. PRINCE2 also gives us roles that are mostly closely aligned to Agile roles.

PRINCE2’s Issues

To take the alternative perspective PRINCE2 struggles when the Executive, Senior User or Senior Supplier don’t know their roles or don’t spend enough energy on them.

PRINCE2 also struggles when start-up and initiation don’t define the required end-point (It’s a PRINCE2 presumption that you have a clear end when you start – nice but hardly guaranteed in most situations).

PRINCE2 struggles when management demand is that all the templates PRINCE2 defines will be fully populated with words at every step and reviewed, approved or rejected and reworked and then frozen in stone while the world around us reveals what we didn’t previously understand and or what becomes rendered unimportant, irrelevant, incomplete by changing events around us.

PRINCE2 is at pains to say this is a wrong perception.

Combining The Two

The marriage made in heaven is that BOTH spouses clearly say successful projects are nimble in tracking moving targets.

Agile says “and here is a scope control mechanism” which PRINCE2, if used sensibly is happy to say “Hey that provides control, lets substitute it for what we would otherwise have mandated”.

Both say “we need defined roles” but PRINCE2 says “and someone manages”. That’s perhaps a source of discord but Agile teams that are direction less (moving fast but not covering distance) benefit from the mechanisms to bring obligation and discipline to direction setter’s involvement.

Both say “It is all about communication”. Agile says “so talk to each other” and sensible PRINCE2 should say “More is communicated, quicker by talking, now how do we add memory and record or reduce the need for memory and record?”

In part the Agile short-cycle-time is a development solution to reducing the need for memory. Maybe it isn’t a long-term maintenance solution. Agile works in tight-knit teams. PRINCE2 has capability in its roles and structures to add coordination between teams and help to scale Agile development but this is where we are back to memory, records, and non-face to face communications.

PRINCE2 Agile Specifically

PRINCE2 Agile has a wide survey of useful trinkets; perhaps a bit like a magpie’s nest stuffed with shiny objects.

PRINCE2 Agile points out the need to understand the Cynefin (pronounced Kuhnevin) framework; the value of short feed-back loops espoused in Lean-Start-Up; Queuing Theory as described by Little’s Law and Kanban, adding Kanban to Scrum to arrive at ScrumBan and a host more valuable elements that ‘give permission’ to step outside of plain PRINCE2’s dictates. A real step in the direction of best of both worlds (now if you just throw in PMBoK-G too….)


* a Scottish word for any confusing or complex situation.

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About Simon Harris

Simon Harris
Simon is a project management veteran with 30 plus years experience of projects gained mostly within large-scale blue-chip environments across finance and banking IT, defence engineering, oil & gas, government and not for profit. Simon has set-up and run PMO for several programmes and organisations.

Simon’s passion is to improve the state-of-the-art in organisation’s ability to cope with change. His thinking rests on the observation that organisations have to balance Run the Organisation with Change the Organisation. Project management is necessary but insufficient. Organisations need a broader and deeper response to change whether discretionary, gradual, irresistible or sudden. Simon welcomes Linkedin connections and you can find out more about Simon from his own website - Logical Model

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