What is PRINCE2?

Before we go into the specifics of PRINCE2, there are some general points about the subject of project management, which should help put everything into context…

Whenever we decide we want to do something, go somewhere, build something, achieve something, we need to know the answer to some questions. What are we trying to do? When will we start? What do we need? Can we do it alone, or do we need help? How long will it take? How much will it cost? These are typical questions asked at the start of any project and the answers are the building blocks of project management – defining what we want to do and working out the best way we can do it.

Structured project management means managing the project in a logical, organised way, following defined steps. A structured project management method is the written description of this logical, organised approach. PRINCE2 is a structured project management method.

We know from experience that projects which aren’t organised and controlled properly usually go disastrously wrong. Some of the big ones hit the press. London Ambulance and Channel Tunnel, for example, both experienced very public problems of systems not working properly and huge overspends. Structured project management methods have been developed to try to prevent such disasters.

We have briefly covered what structured project management, and hence PRINCE2, are all about. Now for some more details about the PRINCE2 method.

PRINCE2 says that a project should have:

  • An organised and controlled start, ie organise and plan things properly before leaping in;
  • An organised and controlled middle, ie when the project has started, make sure it continues to be organised and controlled;
  • An organised and controlled end, ie when you’ve got what you want and the project has finished, tidy up the loose ends.

In order to describe what a project should do when, PRINCE2 has a series of processes which cover all the activities needed on a project from starting up to closing down.

Organising and controlling a project means that we need to have someone responsible for doing the organising and controlling – this person is called the Project Manager. The Project Manager will select people to do the work on the project and will be responsible for making sure the work is done properly and on-time. The Project Manager draws up the Project Plans that describe what the project team will actually be doing and when they expect to finish.

The person who is paying for the project is called the customer or executive. The person who is going to use the results or outcome of the project, or who will be impacted by the outcome of a project, is called the user. On some projects, the customer and user may be the same person. The person who provides the expertise to do the actual work on the project (ie will be designing and building the outcome) is called the supplier or specialist. All of these people need to be organised and co-ordinated so that the project delivers the required outcome within budget, on time and to the appropriate quality.

Each PRINCE2 project will have a Project Board made up of the customer (or executive), someone who can represent the user side and someone to represent the supplier or specialist input. In PRINCE2, these people are called Customer, Senior User and Senior Supplier respectively. The Project Manager reports regularly to the Project Board, keeping them informed of progress and highlighting any problems he/she can foresee. The Project Board is responsible for providing the Project Manager with the necessary decisions for the project to proceed and to overcome any problems.

Providing an independent view of how the project is progressing is the job of Project Assurance. In PRINCE2, there are three views of assurance; business, user and specialist. Each view reflects the interests of the three Project Board members. Assurance is about checking that the project remains viable in terms of costs and benefits (business assurance), checking that the users’ requirements are being met (user assurance), and that the project is delivering a suitable solution (specialist or technical assurance). On some projects, the assurance is done by a separate team of people called the Project Assurance Team, but the assurance job can be done by the individual members of the Project Board themselves.

On most projects there is a lot of administrative work needed, keeping everyone informed, arranging meetings, keeping plans up-to-date, chasing things up, keeping files, etc. Project Managers often do all this work themselves, particularly on smaller projects. But if there are a number of projects going on at the same time, a Project Support Office can be setup to help the Project Managers with this work.

Apart from describing the different people involved on a PRINCE2 project, and what they are each responsible for, the method also explains how to manage risk, how to manage quality, and how to control change on the project. Risk Management is about working out what could go wrong and planning what to do if it does. Quality Management is about checking the quality of work done on the project, either by testing it or reviewing the work in some way. There are always lots of changes during the life of a project; people change their minds, other things happen, which affect what the project is doing. PRINCE2 has a technique of controlling the way changes impact the project in order to prevent the project going off in the wrong direction.

So, PRINCE2 is a method for managing projects. It helps you work out who should be involved and what they will be responsible for. It gives you a set of processes to work through and explains what information you should be gathering along the way. But PRINCE2 doesn’t do the work for you, it cannot guarantee that your projects will be successful. Good projects, which deliver quality results, on-time and within budget are dependent on the quality of people involved from Project Board down to individual team members.