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What is PRINCE2?

We take a closer look at the project management framework

The role of a project manager is to manage business projects and make sure every objective is met on time and within the agreed budget. There are a number of frameworks that help guide the planning and strategy around delivering such projects but PRINCE2 is one of the most flexible.

Fully compatible with agile delivery, PRINCE2 is also one of the more versatile frameworks out there too, with the ability to be applied to projects in a range of industries and tailored to each project’s individual criteria.

Seven key principles, sometimes referred to as ‘obligations’, define a PRINCE2 project and every one must be applied at all stages throughout. Without sticking to the seven core principles of PRINCE2, you don’t have a true PRINCE2 project.

Public sector projects run by the UK government back in the 1990s are thought to have initially championed the methodology first owned and created by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA). Since its acquisition in 1996, the PRINCE2 framework has been owned and developed further by AXELOS which also created, and still maintains, the methodology’s official documentation.

According to AXELOS, PRINCE2 is hugely popular worldwide with more than 1 million certified practitioners across more than 150 countries. It’s available to learn in 18 different languages, can be used in a number of roles and once you pass the course, PRINCE2 practitioners receive a globally recognised certification to use their skills abroad, should they wish to take their skills into their company’s global offices.

PRINCE2 Principles

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PRINCE2 is classified as a ‘principles-driven’ project management methodology, built around the idea of seven principles interacting with seven themes and seven processes. These principles are designed to be universal in their application, able to be shaped to fit any project regardless of scope, application, language, or culture.

The seven principles are:

  • Business justification: the weighing of risks against potential benefits
  • Learning from experiences: building upon mistakes from previous projects
  • Defined roles and responsibilities: a clear organisational hierarchy - team managers that handle the day-to-day tasks, who report to project managers, who in turn report to an overriding executive board
  • Managed by stages: provide control points for the board to review progress to assess justification. Authority for managing the stages is delegated to the project manager
  • Managing by exception: the idea that authority should be delegated using 'tolerances' - threshold ranges for cost, time, quality, scope and benefits of a project
  • Focus on products: agreement on the amount and quality of the product being delivered should form the basis of any project and its reports
  • Tailor to the environment: PRINCE2 is generic by default, and needs to be tailored depending on risk, complexity, project size and importance

These form the fundamental philosophies that project managers should consider when approaching a task. However, the overall framework relies on the interaction between these principles, and what are considered 'themes' and 'processes', both of which are also split into seven elements.

PRINCE2 Themes

PRINCE2 practitioners can view the seven core themes in a similar way to the seven principles, in that each must be considered at every stage of the project. The themes represent the considerations project managers must make when choosing the optimum strategy of the project to achieve its goals most efficiently.

In fact, they help coordinate any priorities identified in the planning process as well as make sure that the team members involved all have the same idea in mind, especially when it comes to keeping deadlines and staying within budget. Simply put, themes should be interpreted as the most basic commandments for the project’s best practice.

The main themes worth considering when planning out a project are issues such as:

  • Costs and benefits, which is a classic business case pitch
  • Organisation (the maintenance of a clear hierarchy of reporting)
  • Product quality (a focus on the product itself)
  • Plans (regular reporting between team members)
  • Risk (a clearly-defined plan for risk management)
  • Change (a comprehensible structure for facilitating amendments to the products)
  • Progress (the continued communication about the progress of the project).

PRINCE2 Processes

While we compared the above-mentioned themes to commandments that should be strictly followed, the processes function as descriptors to the particular activities and stages which comprise a project. What's more, they should also name specific persons who will be responsible for making sure that they are handled correctly and in a timely manner. These include the following:

  • Starting up a project: initial information is filtered to the project executive board, so they can filter out good ideas from the bad
  • Directing a project: regular points within a project for the board to decide whether it has continued business justification
  • Initiating a project: this sets out the firm foundations for the project; it's when the project plan and the detailed business case are written, as well as strategies for managing risks, communication, and quality
  • Controlling a stage: performed regularly by the project manager, it involves dictating the various responsibilities, including allocating work to teams, managing risks, and ensuring the subsequent stages remain within tolerances
  • Managing product delivery: during this stage, all the specialist products are designed, built and checked to ensure they conform to the requirements
  • Managing a stage boundary: performed by the project manager at the end of each stage, this prepares the information required by the board to help them decide whether to continue
  • Closing a project: involves gaining agreement from the users and operation teams that the products are satisfactory. It is also an opportunity for the project managers to report on the achievements of the project and any follow-up actions required

The Principles, Themes, and Processes combine to form a highly structured roadmap that a project is able to follow in order to meet its goals, as well as ensuring a high level of visibility and frequent opportunities to assess progress and make changes. 

PRINCE2 Certification

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Since its conception almost three decades ago, PRINCE2 has grown to be one of the most widely-used project management methodologies in the world, making it an established and acclaimed certification with a multitude of benefits for its holders. Its flexibility and universal application has made it an attractive tool for companies undergoing change, particularly through businesses transformation. If you're looking to go into project management, a PRINCE2 certification looks great on a CV. But depending on the type of project you're looking to manage, you might be better served by an agile methodology. Check out our article here for how to generate buy-in for an agile approach.

AXELOS operates its own exam-based certification programme available through its website. However, there are hundreds of accredited course providers throughout the UK, offering opportunities to learn either online or through weekend classes - just be sure to look out for the AXELOS accreditation badge.

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