Project Management in Practice

Beyond the alphabet soup of PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PMBOK, ITIL, Agile

PMBOK or PRINCE2 … which one is better?


I often see debates on project management forums on LinkedIn, blogs and even at the water cooler around the office regarding what project management methodology is best. I have often wondered about the wisdom of such discussions. The two that are always compared are PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) and PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments Version 2 – 2009). One such discussion with a fellow professional led me to have a little bit of a think.

PMBOK Process Model – Credit: PMI

I will declare my hand at the outset. I have squarely gone for certification route through the Cabinet Office products for project, programme and service management (PRINCE2, MSP and ITIL). This is not necessarily because I was convinced these were the best frameworks, but my assessment of what the market around me considered more valuable. With the Australasian market following that of the United Kingdom and Europe, it made more sense for me to pursue this line, than the PMBOK based certifications from the Project Management Institute (PMI) in PMP and PgMP.

PRINCE2 Process Model – Credit: ILX

Genesis of PMBOK is in the engineering sector in North America. I can see that has led to significant emphasis on the tools and techniques of how to manage projects. I find it has excellent guidance in what it calls the knowledge areas. For example, it provides techniques for monitoring and controlling projects through Earned Value Analysis (EVA), estimation through the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) analysis. It elaborates on Precedence Diagramming Method (PDM) to identify sequencing and various lag options. It has tools and techniques for scheduling using Schedule Network Analysis, Critical Path and Critical Chain, discusses Resource Levelling and What-if Scenario Analysis. Tools and techniques is where PMBOK has it all over PRINCE2, which goes very little into the skills required to be a project manager.

PRINCE2 began with a desire to control capital IT projects in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, a methodology that began in such a technical sphere has very little in the form of guidance through tools and techniques. PRINCE2 is very strong on project governance. Its strength is in the focus on the continued business justification through a living Business Case. In managing by exceptions, it removes the temptation for death by project reports, but at the same time provides a mechanism for escalating when necessary. In managing by stages, it builds in regular reviews of whether the business case the project is trying to deliver to be still valid. The biggest outcome of this is the assertion that a project unlikely to deliver to business case is better cancelled than meandering along. Project structure and principles also ensure projects are delivering to strategic initiatives of the organisation.

I have previously posted about the challenge in implementing PRINCE2 as the project framework for supplier organisations. I have used the principles rather than exact implementation as described in the text. It is much easier to take the PMBOK tools and techniques and implement directly into your projects in a supplier context. PRINCE2 however does a better job of risk identification and management techniques with the various response options and planning. There are also pros and cons about the accreditation methods. PRINCE2 is often criticised for allowing potential non-practitioners to get certified because of its examination only method. In order to get a PMP accreditation, you have to go through a significant effort to prove hours under the belt. That is a good idea. But you have to accumulate Professional Development Units (PDU) to stay current. I have seen plenty of mickey mouse outfits dispensing PDUs like confetti to have any meaning to these.

When I consider all of this, it appears a futile argument from those in either camp. In my view the best option is to use PRINCE2 to understand “how” to run the project and PMBOK for guidance on “what” to do in the specific scenarios. The question is not one of PMBOK or PRINCE2, but how to use both in your projects.

13 responses to “PMBOK or PRINCE2 … which one is better?

  1. Nico Viergever July 24, 2012 at 1:43 am

    The article states that it is much easier to implement PMBoK in a Supplier’s environment and I agree.

    The reason has to do with the real difference between PRINCE2 and PMBoK: the underlying culture and assumptions.
    I have always promoted three PRINCE2 principles, years before the 7 Principles appeared in the 2009 version:
    • Continuous justification
    • Roles and responsibilities based on the Customer /Supplier environment
    • Focus on BUSINESS products (rather than on technical products, i.e. IT products)

    The absence of these three principles in PMBoK reflects the general American view on projects: they are something you do for a customer and get paid for. In the PMBoK view a project is something that is described from a supplier’s/delivery-only point of view.
    This is the reason why for me the PMBoK views will be best applied on the level of the PRINCE2 process Managing Product Delivery, by the Team Manager.

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  3. Paulo Ferreira August 7, 2012 at 1:54 am

    Good article about two good solutions to manage projects. Like you wrote at the end of the artcle the PMBOK is descriptive with best practices. PRINCE2 is prescriptive full of tools ready to use and processes recommendeds, a fact that allows companies to adopt its use immediately after training of involved.
    We can say that the PMBOK is the encyclopedia as a PRINCE2 is the specialized manual. Both coexist in companies and projects.

  4. matt September 5, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    Excellent summary. I have always been a fan of the prescriptive method that PRINCE2 provides. PRINCE2 and PMBOK can be and are used in tandem. I have always found the best approach is to combine different ideas when possible

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  7. Nico Viergever November 21, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Another article, this time about why it is so hard to use PRINCE2 as a supplier: http://www.viergever.info/en/prince2suppl.aspx

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  9. Bob Lee August 7, 2014 at 12:26 am

    Great article illustrats the esstential different feature of each methodology. Thanks

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