PRINCE2 v Agile. What’s the difference?

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PRINCE2© v Agile

The main difference between PRINCE2 and Agile is that they perform different functions. PRINCE2 is a methodology for managing projects whereas Agile is a way of carrying out project work. Agile is not in itself a methodology, but a way of thinking from which several methodologies have arisen, including Scrum and Lean.

  • PRINCE2 controls the management of the project, Agile controls how the work is carried out
  • PRINCE2 focuses on business goals, Agile focuses on customer requirements
  • PRINCE2 is plan-based, Agile is product-based
  • PRINCE2 is predictive, Agile is adaptive
  • PRINCE2 is based on 7 principles, Agile is based on 12 principles
  • Agile focuses on self-organisation of teams, PRINCE2 does not advocate how teams should be organised
  • Agile can respond rapidly to change, PRINCE2 can be more resistant
  • PRINCE2 uses work packages, Scrum uses sprints

PRINCE2 controls the management of the project
Agile controls how the work is carried out

PRINCE2 is a structure for how a project should be run, focusing on a series of successive phases from the beginning of the project to the closing of it.

Agile does not impose a project structure, instead it is a way to think about how the work that goes into the project should be organised and performed. Work is iterative and incremental.

PRINCE2 focuses on business goals
Agile focuses on customer requirements

A key focus of PRINCE2 is that the project continues to meet business objectives and therefore be justified. It looks at the project from a strategic perspective, considering business case and risk. It asks: “what is the purpose of the project?” and “is it worth doing?”

Agile gives less thought to overall strategy and looks more at the product itself, assuming the project is worth it if it’s delivered in the right way. The goal is for the product to meet customer (or product owner) needs first and foremost and for work to be carried out in the most efficient manner possible. The product is delivered incrementally, where features are added to the product bit by bit, incorporating feedback until all customer requirements are met.

PRINCE2 is plan-based
Agile is product-based

PRINCE2 seeks to plan the structure of the project: budget, timescale, work required, resources etc. It considers everything at all levels of the project, from the short-term, like what activities teams carry out, to the long-term, over the course of the project itself.

In most cases, the project manager does not plan how each task will be carried out – this is left to the teams themselves. This means that PRINCE2 can integrate with other working styles like Agile, because teams can carry out the work in whichever way they choose as long as it gets done.

In Agile, everything is about the product. This means prototypes of the product are released as early as possible in order to gain feedback. Communication with the stakeholders is emphasised over documentation or following a rigid structure.

PRINCE2 is predictive
Agile is adaptive

PRINCE2 plans what should happen. It also considers what may happen and plans for it by considering risks, how they can be dealt with and how they can be prevented or minimised.

In Agile, less planning is involved because the idea is to be adaptable to what comes up, whether that be changing requirements or setbacks that may prevent the project from being delivered on time.

This doesn’t mean no planning whatsoever, because requirements are still set from beginning, it’s just that they are not locked down or unalterable. Agile considers that requirements can change throughout the project because the customer may think of something that wasn’t thought of before, or because new constraints have arisen.

Agile does not plan the entire project; instead it plans work in terms of what can realistically be accepted by the customer until the next phase of the product is developed.

PRINCE2 is based on 7 principles
Agile is based on 12 principles

PRINCE2 has at its core seven principles. These are basic rules that every project should follow, such as having clear business justification or that the approach taken should be tailored to each project. Along with these 7 principles are 7 key project roles and 7 key project phases, all of which complement each other.

Agile follows 12 principles. These were first established in the ‘Agile Manifesto’, a document drawn up by its key founders in 2001. The Agile Principles advocate ideas such as ‘the highest priority is to satisfy the customer’ and “welcome changing requirements”.

Agile focuses on self-organisation of teams
PRINCE2 does not advocate how teams should be organised

A core idea of Agile methodology is the idea of self-organising teams. This means teams choose for themselves how work should be accomplished, without any outside staff members directing them. The belief is that teams know what works best for them because they know how they work and the nature of their jobs. Having a project manager who does not know the team giving directions can be a hindrance, not a help.

Because it focuses on the higher level project management, PRINCE2 does not describe how teams should be organised. How they carry out their work is not as important as the structure of the project and how they fit into it. This PRINCE2 should be able to accommodate any work style, including Agile methods like Scrum. PRINCE2 does, however, organise the structure and roles of project staff, including the Project Board.

Agile can respond rapidly to change
PRINCE2 can be more resistant

This can be a controversial one, especially because with its 2017 update PRINCE2 has been changed to be more accepting of Agile methodologies during the ‘Delivery’ stage.

But the generally accepted wisdom is that because planning in Agile only encompasses 4-week sprints, changes can be accommodated more easily than with PRINCE2, where the whole project is planned from the start.

With that said, the point of planning in PRINCE2 is to anticipate and be ready for changes and setbacks. Of course, there is no way you can plan for every possible outcome, but PRINCE2 is more flexible than its reputation suggests – after all, one of its main principles is that it should be tailored to the project environment.

PRINCE2 uses work packages
Agile uses sprints

Work in PRINCE2 is managed using ‘work packages’. Work packages are used to pass information about required work from the project manager to the team members or team manager. They describe how the work will be carried out, constraints, how to handle reporting and what to do if problems arise. PRINCE2 does not state how this work should be carried out – this is up to the discretion of the team manager or members.

Work in Agile is completed in short, 4-week stages called ‘sprints’. These sprints break projects down into smaller, more manageable pieces. The pieces eventually go together to form the whole product. Like with PRINCE2’s work packages, at the beginning of a sprint the team plans how to carry out the work, estimating how much time will be needed. At the end of the sprint, the team and the customer convene to establish if the work meets requirements.

PRINCE2 and Agile

Using PRINCE2 and Agile is not an “either/or” situation. They perform different roles and can in fact be used together. Agile allows for fast response to change, while PRINCE2 supports it by providing governance and structure. A good project manager will have knowledge of both disciplines.

PRINCE2 – Good for businesses who want a fixed price, time and scope.

Agile – Best when detailed requirements are subject to change.