Agile Project Management: Running PRINCE2 Projects with DSDM Atern by Keith Richards

This book’s aim to show how these two internationally-renowned project methods can be used together to improve the chance of delivering successful projects. It gives a way of integrating the PRINCE2 project management method with a highly-configurable and increasingly-popular delivery method, Atern.

PRINCE2 is the one of the world’s leading project management frameworks and is has been around in one incarnation or another since 1989 – the latest version, code-named PRINCE2:2009, will be launched at the end of 2008. PRINCE2 was originally designed for IT projects, but has since become adapted for all types of customer-supplier projects.

Atern is an Agile project delivery method that emphasises incremental delivery of products that have been prioritised according to business value.  The method was created in 1994 by the DSDM Consortium, Atern being the latest version. Like PRINCE2, it too was originally designed for IT projects, but has since been adapted for all types of delivery projects.

The book assumes that the reader is familiar with PRINCE2 but no such familiarity is assumed regarding Atern although any exposure to the method would be useful. The audience is likely to be delivery managers who are familiar with PRINCE2 but frustrated with its lack of detail of specific delivery mechanisms and perceived inflexibility.

Firstly, the book outlines the strengths of PRINCE2 whether or not is it integrated with another method, the most important of which are:

  • driven by the business-case;
  • the use of the project board giving clear direction and advice to the project, while keeping out the way of the day-to-day management activities as performed by the project manager – part of PRINCE2’s management by exception;
  • staged approach to control to act as a checkpoint to ensure that the project is on-course to deliver the envisaged business benefits;
  • the use of time and cost tolerances to cater for permissible deviation from plan;
  • product-based planning using work packages.

The author makes the important point that when integrating PRINCE2 with another method such as Atern, these strengths must not be lost.

Atern is a project delivery framework that is built “ground-up” to be highly robust in handling scope change and highly configurable to the amount of ceremony required in the project. For example, a team spread over three continents writing software for a heart-pacemaker will need more documentation and review processes than a team located in just one room writing software for a small “brochure-ware” website.

Atern has eight core principles:

  • Focus on the business need. All the products delivered in an Atern project are prioritised according to business value.
  • Deliver on time. One of the central tenets of Atern is the use of timeboxes. A timebox is a fixed period of time during which products of business value are worked on. At the end of the timebox, the business community reviews these products. The timebox end-date is always fixed; if deadlines are threatened, lower priority products are moved to the next timebox.
  • Collaborate. Atern emphasises active and continuous stakeholder involvement.
  • Never compromise quality. The quality of each deliverable is agreed between the business and the development team and this is adhered to for the rest of the project.
  • Develop iteratively. Atern’s delivery mechanism is built around an iterative approach in order to converge on the correct solution. This recognises that a correct solution is rarely (ever?) achieved first time.
  • Build incrementally from firm foundations. Some up-front design is performed to ensure that delivery starts off on a sound footing.
  • Communicate continuously and clearly. Atern encourages the use of facilitated workshops and tangible artefacts such as models and prototypes. These “rich” methods of communication are preferred over large textual documents.
  • Demonstrate control. Plans are easily and freely visible to all parties; measurement should be by delivery of business value rather than merely ticking-off completed work-products.

DSDM vs traditional approach

The author emphasises Atern’s particular strengths, the most important of which is the flexing of requirements (features) - see diagram [copyright DSDM Consortium]. In traditional projects - shown on the left on the diagram - features are fixed (coloured green), whereas time and cost are variable (coloured blue); quality is a poor cousin that often gets jettisoned if things get tough. In Atern, the feature set is allowed to vary, with time, cost and quality being fixed.

This is achieved by the use of timeboxes – fixed periods of time, at the end of which a part of the feature set is demonstrated or delivered to the business community. For each timebox, the business community picks out some must-have requirements and some that are less critical. If all goes to plan, all the requirements be delivered; if the must-have requirements take longer than planned then only these will be delivered and the remaining requirements deferred to a later timebox.

However, the author stresses that PRINCE2 and Atern are highly complementary; Atern provides the detailed delivery mechanism that PRINCE2 lacks, while PRINCE2 provides the link to corporate programme management that is absent from Atern.

The author states that the key to integration is to keep the strengths of PRINCE2 while ameliorating its weaknesses with Atern by:

  • avoiding documentational bureaucracy;
  • delivering in iterative and incremental manner rather than in a one big-bang;
  • the team being receptive to change rather than fearing it.

More specifically, he states that a joint project must include:

  • specific mechanisms to deal with scope tolerance (PRINCE2 being strong on cost and time tolerances);
  • a greater business involvement “lower down” project structure - into the delivery teams;
  • a greater delivery focus.

The book then goes onto give specific guidance on doing this by considering how to combine the methods to give a common organisational structure, process model and technique set.

In addition, a useful Appendix gives specific advice on any changes required to individual PRINCE2 management products. This is important as the book points out, many of the two methods’ products are duplicate, or at least overlap substantially in intent.

This excellent book shows how the combination of Atern’s flexibility of handling change and the emphasis on early delivery, combined with PRINCE2’s integration with corporate governance will result in lower-risk projects and more satisfied stakeholders. It will be ideal for all those experienced in PRINCE2 who are looking to dip their toe into the agile water.

Further information: book details; Atern method; PRINCE2 method.

Success Stories

"Agilier's experience in managing business processes made them an ideal candidate to manage functional integration thereby reducing a significant risk to the business. This involved them working with the workstream leads and developing a high-level integrated businesses process against which we planned our programme."

Chris Davies
Programme Manager, EADS Defence and Communications Systems


"I was extremely happy with the professional and complete way that Agilier performed their work and would not hesitate to use their services again."

Mike Haynes
Senior Project Manager, Cogent Defence and Security Networks

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