PRINCE2® vs Agile: A comparison
PRINCE2 is the world's most widely-recognized project management methodology. PRINCE2 qualifications are a standard feature of project management job specifications and have been growing in popularity since PRINCE2 launched in 1996. Currently, over 150,000 PRINCE2 exams are sat somewhere in the world every year.
There's a lot of confusion between PRINCE2 and agile, and indeed debate about whether PRINCE2 or agile methods should be used on projects. In fact, both can and are being used increasingly on projects – often together.
This article explores some of the key features of PRINCE2 and agile and dispels some common myths too.
Differences between PRINCE2 and agile
The most fundamental difference between PRINCE2 and agile is that the former is a project management methodology whereas agile refers to numerous software development approaches used by teams which subscribe to the 12 Agile principles. There are many different agile approaches, the most famous being Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming, and Lean.
Who is PRINCE2 for?
PRINCE2 is a customer-focused project management methodology. It offers a set of principles, themes and processes to enable an organisation’s key managers to justify a project. It helps them understand “why should we do it (the project)?” and “are the benefits worth the costs and risks of doing the project?”. It also focuses on how to manage a project effectively to ensure it remains a worthwhile investment in a changing business environment.
PRINCE2 was developed by the UK government in 1996 as a generic project management methodology.
Who is agile for?
Agile methods are aimed at the supplier and the teams doing the work - whether part of a project or not. They focus on questions for the team such as “what needs to be delivered next week?” and “is the working software what the customer needs?” Agile methods enable people on teams to work together collaboratively with the customer. This is done by defining and prioritizing requirements, developing, testing and providing feedback in a continuous and repetitive cycle of iterations.
Agile methods were developed by engineers in the software industry in the 1990s because they were trying to address specific problems with software projects being consistently late and over-budget. They are now increasingly being used in industries besides the software industry.
What does PRINCE2 focus on?
PRINCE2 is based upon a set of 7 principles which guide all aspects of the methodology. Since it is a project management methodology, it describes the roles and responsibilities of all members of the project management team – higher levels such as the project board, as well as the project manager and team manager roles.
It also covers a wide range of key project management themes – business case, organization, change, risk, planning, quality and progress. Success on a PRINCE2 project is measured by how well it enables the benefits to be realized by the customer organization.
PRINCE2 also includes a full project management lifecycle which explains which role is responsible for taking key decisions at crucial times during a project.
PRINCE2 recognizes that on projects there are all kinds of products (outputs) which are produced by teams of people with various specialist skills. These teams have myriad ways of working and PRINCE2 does not attempt to guide how they should work. Instead it simply defines the interface between the project and these teams in terms of reporting, accountability and the work to be done.
What does agile focus on?
Agile approaches don’t concern themselves with the wider questions about whether a project is worth it, or whether the benefits can be realized afterwards. They do focus however on delivering products incrementally, in the most efficient manner possible. These products are likely to do what the user/customer needs because the customers have been involved in a constant cycle of defining and prioritizing requirements, developing, testing and providing feedback.
Planning with PRINCE2 and agile
One key difference between PRINCE2 and agile methods is that PRINCE2 is often described as a predictive (plan-based) approach, while agile calls for short-term, incremental achievements independent of an over-arching plan (the adaptive approach). This means that, while PRINCE2 enables the customer to remain focused on the project’s original business goals, agile approaches are very responsive to changes in the project environment and customer requirements.
Agile approaches operate on the assumption that the development process is (predictably) unpredictable. They encourage complete transparency, close collaboration and frequent delivery of usable sub-products that will eventually contribute to the final product delivered.
PRINCE2 has the concept of ‘levels of plan’. This suggests that different plans are required by different levels of the project management team. A high level, long-term project plan is required by the key decision-makers (the project board), a medium-term plan is required by the project manager for every stage of the project, and a short-term, low-level plan is required by each team manager (leader) to cover the work done by their team.
Agile approaches such as Scrum, take this concept even further by suggesting a detailed plan for each ‘sprint’. A Scrum sprint is based upon the key agile concept of a ‘time-box’ - a fixed time period typically ranging from between 1-4 weeks. At the end of every iteration a delivery of working software is made to the customer. Delivering working software at the end of each sprint guarantees that the software will never be delivered late. The customer receives ever increasing increments of working software until, at the end of the final sprint, they receive the fully-built and tested system.
The agile concept of time-boxes or iterations fits in neatly with PRINCE2’s concept of a team plan because there can be one or more time-boxes within a team plan. PRINCE2 doesn’t prescribe how many time-boxes a team plan should contain because that’s a decision for the self-organizing agile team members.
|Useful for the customer to justify a project||Useful for the supplier to deliver working software|
|Focuses on higher management levels||Focuses on lower-level teams|
|Answers questions such as “should we do the project?” and “are the benefits worth the costs and risk?”||Answers questions such as “what do we deliver next week?” “how will we know it (a product) is finished?”|
|More predictive approach||More adaptive approach|
PRINCE2 doesn’t attempt to address the ways in which teams can organise on a project. It takes the view that this is not something which should be mandated by the customer commissioning the project. That’s because there are many different technical and development approaches (not just agile ones) and it is best left to the teams themselves to select the best ways in which they will work.
Self-organisation by teams is one of the agile principles however. Suppliers using agile approaches on their teams can easily fit into a PRINCE2 project. The tools and techniques needed to support such agile teams (e.g. task backlogs, burn-down charts, Kanban boards) are selected by the team members themselves, rather than being mandated by the PRINCE2 project manager.
Responding to changes
One feature of agile approaches is their ability to rapidly respond to changing customer requirements. This is because customer requirements (e.g. software features) are described by the customer in the form of tasks which are prioritised in a backlog. Tasks are then scheduled to a team member according to their priority. Because planning is never done further in advance than the next iteration (1-4 weeks usually), tasks can be quickly re-assigned a different priority, new tasks added, or unnecessary tasks removed.
There is a perception (wrong in my view) that PRINCE2 struggles to adapt to changing business requirements. This view is based upon the assumption that PRINCE2 is a project ‘waterfall’ approach. A waterfall approach is where requirements are documented and approved before moving to a design phase, followed by a build phase and finally a testing phase.
Actually, there is nothing in PRINCE2 which prescribes such a waterfall approach. In fact, the latest PRINCE2 manual (2017) makes the assumption that on many projects, requirements emerge and evolve as the project continues. It manages such changes to project scope using its change control approach. However, lower level changes, such as a feature requests can easily be managed at the team level using the prioritization techniques common in agile approaches.
Whereas PRINCE2 focuses on understanding what products are required to support the business needs, agile focuses on completing those products in an efficient manner, incrementally delivering more working software (products) as the work progresses. Utilizing agile approaches on PRINCE2 projects therefore can bring the best of both worlds – the structure and direction of PRINCE2, coupled with the flexibility and responsiveness of agile.
Using PRINCE2 and agile together
As we’ve already said, PRINCE2 isn’t concerned with how teams organize or the methods they use. It does however define a simple interface between the customer organisation which is paying for the project and the supplier organisation which provides the teams to do the specialist work. In fact, it defines a simple process to cover the work done by the supplier’s teams.
This therefore means that teams on a PRINCE2 project can use any development approach they choose – including any of the agile approaches. Providing they comply with the interface defined by PRINCE2, teams can utilize the benefits of agile, whilst the customer maintains the benefits of PRINCE2’s focus on the business justification.
Simply choosing to use a particular method or approach will never guarantee a project is always successful. In fact, any method or approach used stupidly will make a mess of any project.
PRINCE2’s focus on the business justification and whether a project remains justified when the business environment changes remains its biggest asset. It helps to ensure that projects proceed based upon sound business sense. The ability to respond quickly to changes with on-time delivery of products which the customer needs is agile’s biggest contribution to projects.
So, is it a matter of choosing either PRINCE2 or agile methods? Hopefully this article has explained this is the wrong question to ask. PRINCE2 and agile approaches are 2 entirely different things. PRINCE2 is a project management methodology useful for the customer organisation, whilst agile approaches are useful for suppliers delivering the products to the customer.
Projects can benefit from using both the more predictive approach of PRINCE2 with the more adaptive approach of agile approaches. By doing so, projects can deliver products to the customer in a timely manner, fully responsive to a changing environment, whilst also ensuring that the investment was a wise one.
Since it was updated in 2017, the PRINCE2 manual has more focus and practical advice about how it can be used alongside agile methods. That is a welcome contribution and one which agile project managers will find particularly useful.
Simon Buehring is the Founder and Managing Director of Knowledge Train.