What is PRINCE2?

We take a closer look at the project management framework

There is a wide range of methodologies available to developers for software writing, ranging from waterfall to agile. One such project management methodology is known as PRINCE2, which stands for Projects in Controlled Environments, and has been devised with a linear approach in mind.

PRINCE2 involves lining up the various stages of a project and completing them one-by-one before starting the next one. There are clear lines of communication kept between all those involved in the project so that they can work in unison for stronger outcomes.

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The projects most appropriate for the PRINCE2 development methodology are those which are not likely to be affected by any outside factors, such as variable market conditions or the prospect for user behaviour shifting over the course of the process.

The origins of PRINCE2 can be traced to a series of public sector projects run by the government in the 90s. The methodology was acquired in 1996 by a collaboration between the Cabinet Office and outsourcing giant Capita, dubbed AXELOS. It was previously owned by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), which conceived the ideas behind PRINCE in 1989. This methodology isn't as popular as others, such as Agile, given the latter paves the way for more free-flowing and flexible processes with regards to the individuals that comprise the development teams.

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AXELOS still retains responsibility for developing the framework for PRINCE2 and creating documents that support its adoption and progress through phases of development. The latest iteration of the methodology, updated in 2017, comprises a few more agile elements versus versions from the past.

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Copyright 2017 AXELOS Limited. All rights reserved.

PRINCE2 is considered a 'principles-driven' project management methodology, which is built around seven themes and seven processes that each interact with seven overriding principles. These principles are universal in their application, regardless of the language or culture, and are designed to allow those involved to influence the outcome of the project.

They 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
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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.


The themes dictate the underlying priorities of any project, and should be considered and maintained at every stage. These should be thought of as rules for best practice, that help ensure that a project has the best chance of succeeding on time and within budget. 

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Specifically they are: the business case (costs vs. the benefits), organisation (maintaining a clear hierarchy), quality (a focus on the product), plans (regular reporting), risk (a clear strategy for handling risk), change (a clear system for allowing a project manager to make changes in the products), and progress (the continued communication of how a project is progressing).


Copyright 2017 AXELOS Limited. All rights reserved.

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While Themes represent the persistent 'rules', the Processes describe the specific activities and stages during a project, and who is responsible for performing them:

  • 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 is 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 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
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The Principles, Themes, and Processes combine to form a highly structured roadmap that a project is able to accommodate for a wide variety of projects, as well as ensuring a high level of visibility and frequent opportunities to assess progress and make changes. 


PRINCE2 has gained popularity among many organisations across the globe, and as such it is a widely recognised and respected certification. 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.

Main image: Bigstock

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