PRINCE2 is PRINCE2… but Agile is King
PRINCE2 has been around since 1996. It’s widely regarded as de facto process-based method for effective project management around the world. Over the last 23 years, the world and its demands have changed significantly, including the pressure on public sector organisations to deliver world-class services more efficiently. Do public sector organisations champion PRINCE2 as their methodology? Does running PRojects IN Controlled Environments yield the best outputs?
According to a few sources (essentially Wikipedia), PRINCE2 is described as:
“PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments) is a structured project management method and practitioner certification programme. PRINCE2 emphasises dividing projects into manageable and controllable stages.”
Whilst working at Camden Primary Care Trust in 2011, I was sent on the courses which led to me becoming a Practitioner of this method. I was told that once qualified, I would become a wizard at managing projects and that i could get a job anywhere. Every. Single. Job at band 6 and above had the seemingly statutory line of “must have PRINCE2 Practitioner”. This was the case for years and many public sector jobs still mention that nearly 10 years on from when i originally passed.
This is not a blog bashing PRINCE2, not at all, PRINCE2 has many strengths, but in my 15 years experience within the NHS/public sector, the hype around it being the ‘way things are done’ has not been what i have experienced personally. Here are a couple of points.
Point 1 — When i qualified I was given a few projects which were badged as ‘community projects’ or ones which meant closing a service, transferring the contract from one provider to another, moving a service location from one place to another. These projects were absolutely brilliant to flex my PRINCE2 skills as they were very controlled, set, defined projects which were essentially moving things ‘from A to B’. I had controlled stages, I had a lovely project plan that I created in Microsoft Project 2003 and my project steering groups (as they were known) went pretty well each month. In November 2011 I was given a project which involved moving a LIVE service closer to the home of patients. So I had my project mandate, convened a steering group with clinicians and PCT folk and away I went, feeling motivated that we were moving the project ‘closer to home’ so it was brilliant for the PCT, my director, the clinicians, my career… and patients… obviously (insert winking emoji). In short, the project failed… badly. The 50 patients that used the service regularly dropped to just 5, patients complained, GP’s complained and I had to answer for it. What went so wrong, I was diligent, organised and used the right tools?!
What I had failed to do, even on a basic level, was to have meaningful patient engagement and user-centred design skills/principles. I made some fundamental assumptions, spoke about my recommended options to internal stakeholders and thought that it would be the Best. Service. EVER. The truth was that the location had no parking, was 1/2 mile from a bus route and was at the top of a road which had a sharp incline, just to name a few things that were wrong.
This is not to say that this was down to a PRINCE2 purist state of mind, but being process-obsessed and not placing enough emphasis on designing what ‘good looks like’ from the perspective of the problem i’m trying to solve and what the user needs are were BIG contributors to the lack of success in this project. The project eventually was ‘recovered’ and I involved patients more, resulting in a service that was fit for purpose… 7 months later than planned.
Over the years, I see fewer ‘transactional’ projects and more service redesign/transformation ones which ultimately involve significant change. These projects don’t always lend themselves to a rigid process-driven methodology such as PRINCE2, its not impossible, but doesn’t always fit well and I have personally found that adopting Agile methodologies more helpful, relevant and crucial to project delivery.
“Agile is a process by which a team can manage a project by breaking it up into several stages and involving constant collaboration with stakeholders and continuous improvement and iteration at every stage. The Agile methodology begins with clients describing how the end product will be used and what problem it will solve. This clarifies the customer’s expectations to the project team. Once the work begins, teams cycle through a process of planning, executing, and evaluating — which might just change the final deliverable to fit the customer’s needs better. Continuous collaboration is key, both among team members and with project stakeholders, to make fully-informed decisions.”
At a time when transformation, whether digital or not, is what public sector needs in order to successfully deliver services in line with the 21st century that we live in, public sector organisations across the board need to have a design state of mind as commented on by Ben Holliday— Chief Design Officer at my new organisation, FutureGov.
Point 2 — If you work outside of the digital public sector organisations in England, its likely that your organisation says it ‘works to the PRINCE2 methodology’. I have heard this said by every NHS organisation that I have worked in, but found that it was more an aspiration rather than an embedded way of practice. Without doubt, the things I would be asked for would be the following:
Essentially these were the documents which would prove that I was a ‘good’ project/programme lead. As long as ‘green’ was the dominant colour, that seemed to keep people pleased. Even if it wasn’t updated in time for a steering group, I would be asked to produce an updated one … for the following meeting. As project methodologies were mentioned in word, rather than practice, projects across organisations had widely varying levels of effect, completion and impact. There has been enough high profile public sector programmes that have failed to deliver and to this day.
So whether its PRINCE2, Agile or other methodology that an organisation says they operate in, if its not actually practiced from the top of the org, right through the whole company, then projects will continue to largely fail at a time when we need to get services and transformation right for the sake of all citizens.
PRINCE2 is seen as the NHS way of managing projects, but I don’t agree. NHS organisations have time and again shown that they don’t have an actual methodology which is clear, consistent and adhered to. So in that way they don’t really have a clear identity in terms of how they deliver services for public benefit in the most efficient way possible. The contrast is clearly seen when you compare with ones like NHS Digital and the Government Digital Service, they are extremely efficient and produce excellent work which actually empowers and supports citizens to access public sector services.
We have to believe in the power of 21st-century organisations to deliver the highest quality, citizen-centred services that have a lasting impact for all.