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PRINCE2 Project Board White Paper

White Paper

PRINCE2 Project Board White Paper

White Paper

  • White Paper
  • Behaviour
  • Benefits realization
  • Project management
  • Project planning
  • Roles
  • PRINCE2

Author  Allan Thomson

ProPath Product Ambassador, Axelos

February 19, 2019 |

 19 min read

  • White Paper
  • Behaviour
  • Benefits realization
  • Project management
  • Project planning
  • Roles
  • PRINCE2

The purpose of this white paper is to provide an overview of the importance of the project board within the PRINCE2® method. This white paper highlights the activities, duties and required behaviours of project board members as described in the new edition of Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2.

Having the right processes, information and management organization structure are all important but surveys continue to show the absolute necessity of good leadership and senior management engagement for successful project delivery.

It is also important to note that active engagement of senior management is not an excuse for micromanaging, taking on the project manager’s role or delegating everything to the project manager and abrogating all responsibility.

The role of a project board

As a senior manager within a project board you are accountable for three aspects of an organization’s performance:

  • maintaining current business operations or ‘business as usual’ (BAU)
  • transforming business operations to survive, thrive and compete in the future
  • developing new or improved products or service offerings.

Project board positions are very demanding and should work in tandem with the project management team. Most senior managers, whatever their level of experience, are likely to be involved in one or more project boards as a way to support change within their organization.

To be effective in that role, project board members need to understand the duties, behaviours responsibilities and accountabilities expected of them.
This white paper starts to address some key questions raised by those who sponsor or direct projects such as:

  • What is expected of me and when?
  • How do I delegate authority to the project manager but keep control?
  • What decisions am I expected to make and when?

Image of four office workers having a meeting, three are sat on chairs at a desk and one is stood

What are projects and why do they matter?

To direct projects effectively, project boards need to understand what is involved in projects and what makes projects different from current business operations or BAU.

Several characteristics distinguish project work from BAU:

  • Change: projects are how we introduce change in the organization.
  • Temporary: projects are temporary in nature. Once the desired change has been implemented, BAU resumes in its new form and the project is no longer needed. Projects should have a defined start and a defined end.
  • Cross-functional: a project involves a team of people with different skills working together to introduce a change that will impact others outside the team. Projects often cross the normal functional divisions within an organization and sometimes span entirely different organizations. This frequently causes stresses and strains both within and across organizations, for example between customers and suppliers. Each has different perspectives and motivations for getting involved in the change.
  • Unique: every project is unique. An organization may undertake many similar projects and establish a familiar, proven pattern of project activity, however, each one will be unique in some way: a different team, a different customer or a different location.
  • Uncertainty: the characteristics already listed will introduce threats and opportunities beyond those typically encountered during business as usual, so projects involve more risk.

Projects bring about change within and for organizations. As the pace of change accelerates and the consequences of failing to adapt to change become more evident, there is a need to focus on achieving a balance between BAU and business change. Projects are how we introduce change and although many of the skills required are the same, there are some crucial differences between directing business functions and directing project work.

Six office workers in a meeting room, five sat, one stood, all facing the female host

What is project management?

Project management is the planning, delegating, monitoring and control of all aspects of a project, including the motivation of those involved to achieve the project’s objectives within the expected performance targets.

PRINCE2 identifies six performance targets for a project:

  • time
  • cost
  • quality
  • scope
  • benefits
  • risk.

These are used to establish tolerances (a range of allowable deviation from the target level) for each of these performance targets. It is an example of the type of project control that is recognized in PRINCE2.

PRINCE2 is principle-based and has the following seven principles:

  • continued business justification
  • learn from experience
  • defined roles and responsibilities
  • manage by stages
  • manage by exception
  • focus on products
  • tailor to suit the project.

To follow PRINCE2 is to adopt and apply these principles when managing a project.

PRINCE2 provides a comprehensive, flexible and fully integrated set of best practices for setting up an appropriate project management team, establishing plans, monitoring the six performance targets and maintaining control through effective decision-making as the project progresses through its lifecycle. To achieve optimal benefits in PRINCE2, the various roles including the project board must knit together to form a cohesive project management team.

One key skill that is vital in this environment is delegation. There are two distinct aspects to delegation. First, it requires leadership ability and motivational skills. Second, it requires a hierarchical organization structure to operate in, which, in project work, is typically cross-functional. PRINCE2 addresses this aspect of delegating direction by defining an organizational model that is both flexible and temporary, with defined roles and responsibilities that are optimized for project work. The defined roles and responsibility principle allows the project manager to manage the project within the agreed tolerances without the risk of micromanagement by the project board.

Why is directing important?

Reports such as the OGC NAO lessons learned – common causes of project failure; surveys and benchmark reports such as Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession and those conducted by the National Audit Office all provide insight into the way projects succeed and fail. All these reports show that success is attributed to recurring factors such as:

  • Ensuring user involvement: without this there will be no buy-in for the change being proposed.
  • Speed of decision-making: this tends to be quicker in a project environment since there are many difficult decisions to be made as the project proceeds, therefore preparation is key.
  • Senior management commitment and drive: the project board members are the leaders and should be committed to the project and support the project manager. Even allowing for the project manager’s expertise, drive and commitment, it is the project board that is ultimately accountable for the project’s success.
  • Building a facilitative culture: although it is the function of senior management to provide leadership and direction, this is not simply ‘command and control’ and requires working together in tandem with the project manager.

Other factors to consider are:

  • Supporting decentralized decision-making and empowering teams to succeed: this fosters a top-down/bottom-up working structure and supports the PRINCE2 principle of managing by exception.
  • Making sure the right users are involved and used correctly: this increases the chances of a successful output and outcome being delivered and hence a successful project.

Four office workers gathered around a table having a meeting, two are sat using laptops, one is stood up

Why is leadership in project management important?

Leadership demonstrates commitment to the project and provides a steady hand at the wheel which in turn has a positive effect on the team.

There are many characteristics that leaders need to have, but the following have particular relevance for members of the project board:

  • Capable: they are skilled in what they do and have reached a senior position in the organization which reflects their experience.
  • Honest: they are trustworthy not just with their peers but with the project team reporting to them.
  • Creative: they can contribute to, and sometimes provide, the solutions to risks and issues being faced by the project team.
  • Confident: they have the respect of the other project board members and the teams reporting to them. They take responsibility for making decisions and sticking with them. They have an air of confidence about them that the teams can be reassured by.
  • Driven: they are the source of the drive and guiding light for the project. They retain this quality even in difficult situations.
  • Courageous: they are responsible and accountable. They are able to make tough decisions and stick with them.
  • Visible: they are approachable and supportive to the project management team.

Six office workers in a meeting room, some sat with laptops, others using documents

The role of senior management in PRINCE2 project boards

The project board is ultimately accountable for steering the project through to completion. To do this it needs to support and direct the project. As with company boards, if its composition is deficient then the project is likely to struggle. This is a challenging area for a senior manager and one which requires unified direction. Appointing the right project board members is probably the most important factor in achieving a successful project.

The project board has the authority and responsibility for the project. Corporate, programme management or the customer sets the boundaries within which the project board can operate. In PRINCE2, the main roles in the project board are as follows:

  • The project executive is the focus of accountability for the project and accordingly retains the ultimate decision-making authority within the project board. The executive represents the interest of the business.
  • The senior supplier represents the interests of the designing, developing, procuring and implementing parties of the project’s products. The role is accountable for the quality of the products delivered by the supplier(s). They are responsible for the technical integrity of the project and will provide supplier resources to the project.
  • The senior user specifies the benefits and is held to account by demonstrating to the business that the forecast benefits, which were the basis of project approval, have been or are being realized. The senior user is responsible for ensuring that the project product is driven by the need to deliver the stated benefits, which may not be realized during the lifetime of the project. The senior user is also responsible for providing user resources to the project.

Image of diagram Figure 7.1 showing PRINCE2 project management roles

Figure 7.1 The PRINCE2 project management team roles, from Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2

The duties and behaviours of senior management

8.1 THE PROJECT BOARD’S MAIN DUTIES

Apart from directing the project throughout the project lifecycle, the main duties of the project board are:

  • Ensuring benefits are planned for, monitored and recognized in order to meet the project business case.
  • Ensuring the project remains viable, deliverable and desirable for the internal and external business environment.
  • Facilitating cross-functional integration across the business. The project team is temporary and quite likely a cross- functional structure; the project board must ensure that this is recognized and respected in the line management organization and that the project board’s authority is not undermined. If all cross-functional teams work together, understand each other’s role and position, and trust each other, the project team can achieve much more as a whole than as separate individuals.
  • Committing resources. The project board members collectively should have the authority to deliver all the resources required for the success of the project. Lack of available resource as a result of operational work is one of the major causes for project delays or failure.
  • Confirming the tolerances involved for the business performance metrics. The tolerances provide the project manager with a defined measure of discretion before decisions must be escalated for resolution by the project board.
  • Ensuring effective decision-making. Decision-making is the means by which control is maintained; PRINCE2 provides an optimized method for this purpose. It is the project executive who is the ultimate decision-maker with support from the other project board members. It is important to note that by approving plans/proposals, the project board is:
    • endorsing the effort and costs involved
    • committing to make the necessary resources available.
Ensuring effective progress. Once the project has been initiated, the project board becomes primarily a progress-control function where plans are approved and progress is assessed and reaffirmed at project board reviews, principally at stage boundaries. All project board reviews should be based on the same simple agenda:
  • Look back and look at where we are now: this involves reviewing status in relation to the current stage plan (or exception plan).
  • Look forward: preview the next stage plan (or exception plan).
  • Assess overall project viability: consider the current status of the business case, project plan and risks/issues.
  • Decide whether to give authorization to proceed by approving the next stage plan (or exception plan) or close the project.

  • Managing risks, issues, changes and exceptions. Decisions on minor risks, issues and changes can usually be delegated to the project manager. However, due to their level of severity, some should be referred to the project board. This should be agreed when initiating the project and should be documented in the project initiation document.
  • Structuring the project management team. The project board needs to carefully consider the proposals for the structure of and appointment to the project team. Those involved need to have extensive knowledge and the authority appropriate for the scale and nature of the project. They also require the personal qualities to be able to work together as a team.

8.2 THE PROJECT BOARD’S MAIN BEHAVIOURS

Apart from directing the project throughout the project lifecycle, the main behaviours of the project board are:
  • Project accountability: the project executive within the project board is accountable for the ultimate success or failure of the project. Being accountable means accepting and ‘demonstrating’ ownership of the project.
  • Providing unified direction: the project board needs to provide unified direction, which can involve difficult compromises.The project board should work together as a team to achieve mutually agreed solutions. In order to do so, they need to have clearly defined authority for decision-making.
  • Being an effective leader: we have touched on this topic earlier but here we shall focus on the term ‘servant leader’. This means that you are willing to put team members’ needs above yours whilst meeting the objectives of the project. A team ethos of ‘we’ is endorsed. Project board members should act as servant leaders. It is not just a participative leadership style, it is more a way of behaving that you adopt over the longer term. For more information on servant leadership please refer to PRINCE2 Agile® (2015) (Section 10.5.1).
  • Valuing the team: it is the role of the project board to ensure that everyone is looked after, made to feel valued and respected, and knows what they need to accomplish.
  • Delegating effectively: the project board should delegate effectively using the PRINCE2 organizational structure and controls. Several aspects of PRINCE2 are designed to promote effective delegation such as:
    • The well-proven structure of roles and responsibilities in the project team
    • Plans designed to meet the needs of managers at different levels
    • Implementation of management stages where the value management of the project is delegated to the project manager on a stage-by-stage basis which could also include a ‘stage contract’ between the project manager and the project board.
  • Being responsive: the project board should respond swiftly to requests or escalation of project exceptions from the project team.
  • Supporting the project manager: the project manager is the focus for the day-to-day management of the project work and has a busy and stressful role. The project board can remove some of the obstacles by demonstrating visible, effective and sustained support, some examples being:
    • Provide unified and consistent direction
    • Act as a mentor as appropriate
    • Listen carefully to the project manager’s concerns
    • Be accessible for consultations, advice and guidance
    • Respond promptly and constructively when matters are escalated
    • Participate in all the formal project board reviews.
  • Ensuring effective communication: the project board is responsible for directing communication with stakeholders and acting as champions for the project. A communication management approach will be essential on large or complex projects with many stakeholders. A rich communication environment within the project should be created, one where information passes freely in a culture of commitment and trust. There is still a need for documentation but by making use of more effective channels, it can be complemented and greatly reduced in quantity.

Six office workers gathered together stood watching one of them presenting

The project board activities on a PRINCE2 project

The project board is primarily concerned with the following PRINCE2 processes:

  • starting up a project
  • directing a project, which involves authorizing:
    • initiation
    • the project
    • a stage plan
    • an exception plan
  • project closure.

During the lifetime of the project, the project board is also required to give ad-hoc direction (as appropriate) and be involved in benefits reviews.

Ultimately, project board members are there to make timely decisions. If the decisions are delayed or poorly informed, then the project itself could be delayed and put at risk.

9.1 STARTING UP A PROJECT

The purpose of this process is to ensure that the prerequisites for initiating a project are in place by answering the following questions:

  • Do we have a viable and worthwhile project?
  • How does the project support and contribute towards the organization’s strategy?

Starting up a project is as much about preventing ill-conceived projects from being initiated as it is about approving the initiation of viable projects. The aim is to do the minimum necessary in order to decide whether it is worthwhile to initiate the project.

9.2 DIRECTING A PROJECT

The primary activities involved in directing a project are described in more detail below:

9.2.1 Authorize initiation

The purpose of authorizing initiation is to decide whether it is a worthwhile investment to develop the outline business case further by initiating a formal project. The project board decides whether to proceed by assessing the project brief. If the decision is to proceed, the project board needs to review and approve the stage plan for initiation. One outcome from initiation is the project initiation document (PID) which is used to approve future activity.

9.2.2 Authorize the project

The purpose of authorizing the project is to decide whether to commit to the project as a business investment. The decision is based on the detailed PID which has been developed by the project management team in the initiation stage. Once the project board has approved the PID, it becomes the baseline for all forms of project control, covering benefits, risks, scope, quality requirements, costs,
timescales and tailoring guidelines. The project board can then consider and approve the stage plan for the next stage that follows initiation.

By authorizing the project, the project board is attempting to answer the following questions:

  • Why do we want to undertake the project?
  • What does the project need to deliver?
  • How will the benefits be measured?
  • Who will be the key players in the project management team?
  • How much resource and finance will be needed?
  • When will the effort be needed?
  • Are the risks acceptable?
  • How do we tell people about the project?
  • Are we ready to start?
  • Have we established the right level of governance?

9.2.3 Authorize a stage plan

Once the project has been authorized and the PID approved, the project progresses as a series of one or more delivery stages during which the project product is created. This is what the project must deliver in order to gain acceptance. Authorizing a stage plan is the activity performed by the project board at each stage boundary.

The purpose of authorizing a stage plan is to provide the project board with an opportunity to review progress, reaffirm the viability of the project and give the project manager approval to proceed based on an agreed stage plan.

In this step, the project board manages by exception which means that the project board’s focus is the control points only, with the stage plan being the notional contract between the project board and the project manager.

9.2.4 Authorize an exception plan

Authorizing an exception plan is the activity performed by the project board in the event of a project exception. An exception is a condition occurring during a stage which requires escalation to and resolution in a timely manner by the project board. An exception prevents the project manager from completing the stage within agreed tolerances for scope, time, cost, quality, benefits and risk.

9.2.5 Authorize project closure

This is effectively the last project activity. Its purpose is to confirm that the project has been concluded in an orderly manner before the remaining project team is disbanded.

Two sets of hands, one clasped and resting on a table, the other holding paperwork and signing documents

In addition to the sequential processes described above, the activities below will occur throughout a project’s lifecycle.

9.2.6 Give ad-hoc direction

This is an important task for the project board, providing opportunities to support the project manager, communicate and delegate effectively. The project board can provide direction individually or collectively. The purpose of this activity is to ensure that there is a consistent and thorough mutual understanding between the individual project board members, the project manager, project assurance and the external stakeholders throughout the project’s lifecycle.

9.2.7 Reviewing benefits

A benefits management approach is produced and approved alongside the business case during project initiation. This details who will do the benefit reviews, when they should be done and how they will be conducted. The project board must ensure that benefit reviews are planned and executed post project. If benefits are achieved during a project, they are reviewed at stage boundaries. This means that when authorizing a stage or exception plan and authorizing project closure, the achievement of benefits is the measure of the project’s success.

Four office workers having a meeting, two men and two women

The updated Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 guide

The new edition of the Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 is designed to support senior managers who are undertaking project board roles. The guide covers the essential elements that project board members need to consider to drive successful projects. It covers the duties, behaviours, responsibilities and accountabilities expected of members of the project board, and can be used as a reference tool at any stage of the project to check what is required. It is intended to be used in conjunction with the latest edition of Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 and now contains extensive guidance on how to tailor the method to the particular requirements and specifics of any project at every key stage in the process.

The guide answers the following questions raised by those who sponsor or direct projects:

  • What is expected of me and when?
  • What should I expect of the project manager?
  • How do I know that the project manager is applying PRINCE2 appropriately?
  • How do I delegate authority to the project manager but keep control?
  • What decisions am I expected to make and when?
  • What information is required/available to help me make decisions?
  • How do we tailor the use of PRINCE2 for projects of differing scale or type?
  • What does an effective project board look like?

Project board checklist

The following list has been created as a quick reference for project board members to consider throughout the lifecycle of the project. These are not glossary definitions and it is by no means exhaustive, but it is a good place to start.

It is recommended to refer to Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 for more detail. Appendix B of the guide contains process-oriented checklists as a quick reference tool to ensure that the project is following the PRINCE2 method throughout its duration.

Topic

DescriptionCompleted
Benefits

The project board focuses on the outcome. The project is only justified if it realizes its benefits. The project board ensures that benefits are planned for, monitored and recognized in order to meet the project business case.

Budgets

The project board sets realistic budgets to enable the project objectives to be met. The project board prevents the project exceeding its budget.

Business

Business expectations are realistic.

Communication

The project board maintains consistent, frequent and high-quality communication through the life of the project with both the project team and interested parties.

Commitment

Project board members show commitment and dedication to the project.

Consultation

Project board members make themselves available for consultation with the project manager and other stakeholders.

Decisions

The project board makes timely and unified decisions authorizing the project work to proceed or not.

Delegate

Project board members delegate effectively.

End project reviews

Project board members ensure that end project reviews take place in order to learn from experience

Engaged

Project board members are visible, approachable and actively engaged with the project.

Learn from experience

This principle is continuously applied throughout the life of the project.

Mentoring

The project board members are prepared to mentor the project manager.

Project Brief

This is stable once approved.

Project board meetingThese are timely and structured with a fixed agenda.
ResourceThe project board ensures that the right resources are in place and are involved in a timely manner.
RisksThe project board properly understands all the risks involved.
Servant leadership

The project board is willing to put the team members' needs above their own whilst remaining true to the objectives of the project.

SurprisesThere are no surprises between the project board and the project manager at project reviews.
TimescalesProject timescales are consistent and realistic
Unified directionThe project board has a unified front which will instil confidence in the project manager and wider stakeholder group.

Conclusions

Being on a project board is a demanding but rewarding activity; you will see change rolled out across your organization and the benefits being achieved and realized. Giving leadership to the project team by making timely decisions, giving direction and delegating authority helps ensure project board members are involved to the optimum degree and can gain satisfaction from seeing their projects succeed.

References

AXELOS (2018) Directing Successful Projects with PRINCE2. AXELOS, London, UK. AXELOS (2017)

Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2. AXELOS, London, UK. AXELOS (2015)

PRINCE2 Agile. AXELOS, London, UK.

Office of Government Commerce (2009) OGC NAO lessons learned – common causes of project failure [Online] Office of Government Commerce. Available from: https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/ publications/dfp/ogc-nao-lessons-common-causes-of-project-failure.pdf [accessed 04 February 2019]

Project Management Institute (Yearly) Pulse of the Profession [Online] Project Management Institute.
Available from: https://www.pmi.org/learning/thought-leadership/pulse [accessed 04 February 2019]

About the Author

Allan Thomson has over 25 years’ project and programme experience. He has worked with companies such as British Gas and BP in Customer Relationship Programme Management and Risk Programme Management respectively.

He joined AXELOS in 2014 and has acted as a Programme Manager and SME (Subject Matter Expert) for PRINCE2 Agile, and as an SME on the PRINCE2 2017 update. He is presently a PPM (Project and Programme Management) Product Ambassador.

Author Allan Thomson

PRINCE2 Project Board