Competitive projects: Agile or Prince2, does there have to be a choice?
In many ways, learning how to deliver a competitive project isn’t very different from learning downhill skiing or sailing: in the end, the objective is to reach the bottom of the slope or your destination in a safe, smooth and pleasant ride, where your speed and your direction will be under control.
Although very concentrated every second of the ride, what you will feel, if you do things right, is the exhilaration from your skis carving the snow to perfection or from the effortless glide of your boat surfing the waves.
Those of you who have ever skied or sailed will recognise this feeling. What drives this sensation is a near intuitive capacity to create value (in this case, speed), by choosing the right route, whilst managing the related risks and applying the adequate skiing or sailing techniques properly.
This is also what project managers should aspire to attain in their projects.
When things don’t quite happen that way, whether on a ski slope, at sea or in a project, it is often because the focus lies too heavily on one of the previously mentioned elements (value, risks or the used techniques), at the expense of the others.
In such cases, the one element often causing most trouble is the prevalence of the project delivery process over value creation or risk management.
It’s like when you focus too much on your skis or on the sequence of steps you need to go through to execute a manoeuvre with your boat: you loose sight of where you want to go and what is happening around you, with a poor result, as a consequence.
Similarly, in project management, the delivery methodology often ends up playing the central role, overshadowing the objective and what stands in its way.
I experienced this first-hand, when I was working at Shell, which has a long tradition of excellence in engineering and delivering complex projects in frontier environments.
At some point, industry benchmarks were showing that we had lost our edge over the competition in delivering value out of our projects. As a result, our ability to conclude deals was eroding. Yet, deals and projects were our lifeblood. So we needed to understand what was going on and fix it.
It turned out that our project standards and processes were sound, but over time they had grown so much that they had become the end rather than a means to it.
A large-scale transformation initiative ensued, aimed at driving up our competitiveness again. This effort did not mean that we re-invented the way we were delivering projects. Instead, we looked at which steps and activities were making the difference between success or failure and we streamlined and simplified our existing processes towards them, giving more autonomy to the project managers and their teams to scale their application.
As it turned out, it ended up becoming a hybrid of Agile and Prince2 elements, as depicted in the figure below (© Association for Project Management) .
In hindsight, based on my appreciation of both approaches, it does not really surprise me. In today’s business context, successful projects require a mix of planning, anticipation and forecasting, combined with an ability to adapt the business case to constant changes and an increased focus on value.
Today, I base my training approach for project competitiveness and team performance on this very experience.
Rather than teaching Prince2 or Agile project management, I borrow elements from both approaches, as per the table below, to take the participants through a project, concentrating on the key activities, which make projects successful. I train them to identify value levers and how to use them. More importantly, I develop their capability to ask the questions and find the answers, which will enable to avoid the pitfalls making projects derail.
To achieve this, I use a serious game simulating the preparation and participation in an ocean race, for the many similarities sailing races present with business projects, like context volatility, the impact of technology disruptions on business models and the importance of team collaboration for success.
Participants in the game are thrown into value creation challenges, strategic decisions, tactical choices, risk management and continuous improvement, whereby they learn how to recognise and develop the competitive mindset, attitudes and behaviours, required in their projects.