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PRINCE2 and PMBOK: How They Compare

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I was interviewed by Diego Nei for the Brazilian blog, Papo GP (Talking PM – I think I’ve got that right). We were talking about PRINCE2®, what it means to get qualified and how it compares to the PMBOK Guide.

If you’re up for it, you can read the interview in Portuguese, but Diego has also sent me the interview in English and let me reproduce it here.

I have updated my responses in order to better reflect the PRINCE2 and A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge — PMBOK® Guide, as at October 2021 as the PMBOK® Guide has been updated since this interview first took place, and PRINCE2 US was launched in 2020.

Today, on our Project Management Methodologies Series, we’re going to interview Elizabeth Harrin, from the award-winning blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. Elizabeth is the author of Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World and writes widely on the topic of project management for a range of publications.  She first took her PRINCE2 Practitioner exam in 2004.

Hello Elizabeth, thanks for coming, how are you?

Well, thank you!

Elizabeth, what’s the story behind the PRINCE2 methodology?

PRINCE2 stands for Projects IN Controlled Environments and is a widely used project management method.  First came PRINCE in 1989 as the UK government standard for IT project management.

Since then it has been adopted by the public and private sectors world-wide and revised several times; PRINCE2 was the most significant rewrite.  The most recent version was released in June 2009, which has split the manual into two, covering project managers and project sponsors.

In 2020, AXELOS, the awarding body for the PRINCE2 family of certifications, launched a version specifically aimed at the US market, with relevant vocabulary and case studies.

In brief, how does PRINCE2 work?

PRINCE2 is process based, with processes covering starting a project, directing a project, initiating a project, managing stage boundaries (sign off and moving between stages), controlling a stage, managing product delivery (there is an emphasis on product based planning) and closing a project.

This is all done in an environment of seven themes:  business case, organization, quality, plans, risk, change and progress. There are also seven values.

Elements of the PRINCE2 method

How do these themes correlate to the project lifecycle we find in the PMBOK® Guide?

There’s a lifecycle in PRINCE2 as well. The themes are the environment in which the lifecycle happens.

In PRINCE2 you start with pre-project, then the initiation stage, then the subsequent delivery stages (you might want several if the project is long) then the final delivery stage which includes closing a project.

PRINCE2 is highly tailorable, and both approaches have embraced tailorability in recent years. The Project Management Institute approach has been to bring more agile into the main guide, and to publish it alongside the Agile Practice Guide.

The PRINCE2 guidance is not specifically agile, but it could be adapted to be so. There is also PRINCE2 Agile as a specific, different qualification you can get.

What are the main differences between PRINCE2 and the PMBOK® framework?

PRINCE2 offers a start-to-finish way to get a project off the ground, see it through and wrap it up, which is what some new project managers find difficult.

PRINCE2 includes a discussion of how to start up a project and practical detail on change control; something studying for the PMP exam alone won’t give you. So where the PMBOK® Guide says you need an approach to manage project changes, PRINCE2 will actually tell you how to go about it.

There are other differences: the PMBOK® Guide usefully covers procurement, whereas PRINCE2 assumes you are operating in an environment constrained by a contract, because of its roots in government IT projects. 

You won’t find anything in PRINCE2 about people management or the soft skills of project management, although these are covered in other related books. The latest edition of the PMBOK® Guide does put an emphasis on people skills. I think that’s less apparent in the PRINCE2 guidance, but that’s not to say people aren’t a feature. The values put collaboration and business value at the heart of delivery, and you definitely need the people skills to do that, even though there’s less specific reference to them.

Are PRINCE2’s concepts exclusive or complementary to the PMBOK® Guide?

PRINCE2 isn’t exclusive, it will work with the PMP way of managing projects. It’s not a ‘PRINCE2 vs PMBOK’ type situation. If you have the mandate and resources, there is no reason why PMBOK and PRINCE2 cannot be put to effective use on the same project.

In fact, a growing number of project managers are doing just that, and showing the value of using the PMBOK Guide and PRINCE2 to complement each other.

The key to making flexible methodologies like PRINCE2 and frameworks like the PMBOK Guide work together is in being flexible yourself.  Pick and choose the bits that will provide the most value to your project.

The PMI approach has a huge amount of detail that will help you approach your projects in a professional way. Applying them all would be as unhelpful as it is unrealistic.

PRINCE2 is the same: there is no point in sticking rigidly to the workflow in the book if it takes you three times as long to get anything done. Fortunately, both approaches have shifted over the years to bring in more ‘permission’ for project managers to tailor methods to suit themselves.

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What are PRINCE2’s strengths?

It’s very structured. It’s approach to running a steering group or project board is very clear and there is an emphasis on roles and responsibilities. There is a lot of documentation but you don’t have to do it all and what you do complete really helps people understand the project scope and get things right.

PRINCE2 processes

And what are the weak points?

As I said, PRINCE2 doesn’t cover working with people and as team management and getting the best out of the people is what we all do every day, this seems like a big oversight on the part of PRINCE2, especially as project boards form such a critical part of the standard.

In my experience a project board, or steering group, ensures much wider buy-in for the deliverables and benefits across the organization. Project managers need to be able to engage stakeholders effectively, and that’s far more part of the job now than the technical skills. I’m a project management mentor and the people I talk with often report that the hardest part of getting stuff done is simply working with others.

The downside of boards is that they are harder to set up and manage, and sometimes having one person who provides executive sponsorship can be all that is needed to make decisions quickly. Boards can also be overkill for small projects — as can a lot of PRINCE2 documentation.

The 5th edition of the PMBOK® Guide introduced a section on stakeholder management, which was long overdue. Emphasis on people, teams, leadership and the so-called soft skills required to truly operate in a strategic leadership position has only increased since then.

Is there any kind of project where PRINCE2 is recommended over other methodologies?

No, not that I’m aware of.

What are the most used tools and software on PRINCE2?

PRINCE2 doesn’t mandate tools and software, you can use whatever you like – or nothing at all.

There are a set of useful document templates and organizations tend to pick and choose from those.

Where can we find those templates? Are they free?

They are on the AXELOS website, and yes, at the time of the interview they are free. You can get a business case, project brief and project initiation document.

Once you’ve passed, you can subscribe to the MyPRINCE2 service which gives you access to more templates and other resources.

If you don’t like the ‘official’ templates have a hunt online to see what you can get for free. I have some free project management templates, although they aren’t PRINCE2 templates specifically.

PMI regulates the PMP certification. What agency regulates PRINCE2’s certifications?

AXELOS administers the PRINCE2 exams and accreditation. It’s a joint venture company partly owned by the Cabinet Office of the UK government.

What is the process to become a Certified PRINCE2 Foundation and PRINCE2 Practitioner? Are there eligibility requirements?

There are no eligibility requirements for either exam. Take a training course online, or learn yourself from the manual, then sit the exam. You will typically get Foundation results back the same or next day. It takes longer to find out if you have passed Practitioner exams.

Still about certifications, what are the differences between the Foundation and Practitioner certifications?

The Foundation exam is about knowing knowledge, the Practitioner exam is about being able to apply that knowledge in practical situations to deliver successful projects.

A Practitioner training course is typically 5 days, where you learn the basics early in the week, take the Foundation paper on the Wednesday and then learn the more advanced stuff and take the Practitioner exam on the Friday.

As you would expect, the Practitioner exam is longer, more difficult, and has a higher pass mark than the Foundation exam!

The same is true of the PMI family of certifications: you don’t need experience to take the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM®) credential. The PMP exam is harder, as it requires you to be able to apply your knowledge as well as understand the core concepts.

how to earn PDUs fast

How do you retain the certification? Is there something like PMI’s PDUs?

There is a Continuous Professional Development scheme like PDUs, but you don’t have to go for it.

You can either opt out of CPD and then take the exam again after 3 years (it used to be 5 years… it feels like there is a move towards getting more people to opt into continuous professional development if you ask me). Or sign up for the CPD scheme and earn 20 points each year for three years. Then you don’t have to take the exam again, and the cycle starts again.

In Brazil, where can people take the exam for the PRINCE2 certifications?

There are Brazilian training providers offering PRINCE2. You can see the list on the AXELOS website, where you can search for providers by country.

How do you see PRINCE2’s growth nowadays, considering the high value the PMP Certification is getting over the years?

I don’t know where this view that PRINCE2 is ‘small’ has come from.  There seems to be widespread belief in the US that PRINCE2 is used by a couple of people in a small village outside Tunbridge Wells, but that really isn’t the case.

(laughs)

PRINCE2 is used in 150 countries with exams are available in 18 languages.  There are over 1 million certified professionals around the world**. Globally it is estimated that 2 million people have taken exams in PRINCE2***.

There is 20% growth year on year, and as project-based enterprises are only increasing, I can see this continuing.

There are 652,000 members and 1,225,000 credential holders in over 200 countries****, with more than 80k proctored exams in 2020 alone*****. The 7th edition PMBOK Guide is published in ten official languages. Looking at it that way, there are more PMP certificates hanging on office walls, but PRINCE2 is growing substantially and isn’t the poor relation. Especially now there is a US version that substantially opens up the PRINCE2 way of working to another market.

Where can interested people find resources to study about PRINCE2?

I recommend the training courses from Management Plaza. They’ve got a good selection of materials including an exam simulator, great student reviews, and an active Facebook group.

Thanks a lot for the interview Elizabeth, it was a pleasure having you here with us on Papo GP! Would you like to share final considerations?

Another thing to note is that PRINCE2 is not a membership organization like PMI. You don’t pay a yearly subscription, you don’t get magazines or a conference. For this reason it is much cheaper, but if you want the networking side of a membership organization you have to find it elsewhere.

There are lots of places like this blog and my blog, and the #pmot group on Twitter where you can meet like-minded people at no charge!

Take it further

  • Read an overview of the PRINCE2 method.
  • Talk to your employer about what certifications are most relevant to them, and ask your colleagues what credentials they have. That information can help you make the best choice about what kind of qualification is going to be right for your career advancement.
  • Check out my recommended reading for PRINCE2.

**This statistic is from the Axelos site, who have the certification ownership rights of PRINCE2 as of 2021

*** This statistic is from a 2021 update on KnowledgeTrain

****From the 2020 PMI annual report

*****As published in the 2020 PMI annual report financials

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