"What are the differences between Agile and a structured approach to project management? Which is best?"

Project ready

Do you know the difference between Agile and a structured approach to project management. Which is best? Mike Acaster explains why a combination of both could help in business.

As any chartered accountant will appreciate, forecasted budgets can very often differ from actual spend and the return on investment may not always reflect the original business case. In today’s fast-paced commercial environment, businesses are losing millions of pounds from their bottom line with projects that run over time, over budget and do not necessarily deliver against the original objectives.

To prevent this, there are a number of different structured project management methodologies in use by organizations all over the world. A structured approach to project management is designed to deliver any project of any size – regardless of sector – and is focused on delivering projects on time and within budget.

AXELOS – a joint venture between the Cabinet Office and Capita – has responsibility for the most widely used structured project management methodology, PRINCE2®. Released in 1996, it was originally developed by the UK government. It has become increasingly popular and is now a de facto standard for project management in many UK government departments and across the United Nations’ system.

Like other structured approaches to project management, it gives a scalable means to control of resources that can be tailored to specific projects – and the ability to manage business and project risk more effectively. It isolates the management aspects of project work from the specialist contributions and the means of delivery. The specialist aspects can then be easily integrated into a secure overall framework for the entire project. One of the key strengths of PRINCE2 in particular is that it requires an ongoing business justification for the investment to deliver a specific project.

Because PRINCE2 is generic and based on proven principles, organizations adopting the method can substantially improve their organizational capability and maturity across various areas such as business change, construction, IT, mergers and acquisitions, research and product development.

The Agile Approach

Other methodologies approach projects from completely different angles. Agile – which has its roots in software development – takes an iterative attitude to project management. Each iteration is reviewed and critiqued by the project team, and insights gained from that critique are used to determine what the next step should be in the project.

Agile originated with software developers, who believed there was a more appropriate way to manage the cyclical software development process. The publication of the Agile Manifesto in 2001 marked the beginning of the methodology. Since then, Agile has branched out into a number of different ‘schools’ – Scrum, Extreme Programming and others – each stressing slightly different approaches. However, the core remains the same; repeated iterative steps to produce results in a short time scale.

Agile provides a quick, flexible way of working which builds in feedback from the team at every stage. Agile is very effective for small teams working in a single to projects that may not have been obvious at the outset.

Many organizations across the globe are now looking towards adopting Agile practices, but aren’t sure which methodology is the most appropriate for their business, or if Agile can be combined with a structured approach. Even when they do make the decision to adopt an Agile approach, many businesses recognize the need to apply greater control than the methodology allows.

Which is Right for Me and My Organization?

Each approach has its own benefits. Agile appeals because of its collaboration, quick pace and rapid feedback mechanisms, while structured approaches provide control, good governance and structure. They share some elements: both hold the central tenet that prioritizing is vital, and strive to avoid an ever-increasing wish list of project goals.

The traditional orthodoxy says that for delivery-focused projects, running in a single team and with a relatively straightforward goal, Agile can be highly effective. When delivery demands become more complex, or spread between multiple teams in multiple locations, Agile can begin to produce unhelpful results. For those larger projects, a structured approach can be a more reliable way of ensuring that delivery is not undermined by working practices.

The Best of Both Worlds

We have asked project management experts all over the world what they would like to see from PRINCE2 and the other parts of our portfolio – and what they have told us is that often, they’d like to be able to use both approaches. The two are not inherently opposed, as PRINCE2 does not stipulate exactly how a piece of work needs to be delivered. Each industry sector will have its own appropriate approach – and this is accommodated in the methodology.

As more and more organizations adopt Agile, it is becoming more accepted and less controversial that to perform effectively at scale, more control is required – which is where a structured approach comes into its own. Both approaches emphasize adding value for the organization, each with a different focus. A structured approach prioritizes the business justification for the investment needed to achieve something of value, and Agile stresses the delivery of usable products and adds value incrementally.


AXELOS will shortly be launching PRINCE2 Agile™ – a new element of the portfolio that will allow practitioners to combine the two approaches and make PRINCE2 and Agile complementary, rather than being a marriage of opposites. In new product development, for example, a business case is required; once that and the investment are established under PRINCE2, the development process can occur in an Agile way. One approach supplements the other while managing the risks of the wider project.

For further information about PRINCE2 Agile, or to learn about the rest of the Global Best Practice Portfolio visit axelos.com.

By Mike Acaster, PPM Portfolio Manager - AXELOS

As originally seen in Chartech Magazine published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales in May 2015.

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PRINCE2 Agile™ Guidance Preview

Read the first three chapters of our PRINCE2 Agile guide and find out more about this new project management framework.

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