Is it a goal to deliver a project on budget and on time? No!

It is quite common for consultants and trainers in the area of project management to claim they have a way to deliver a project on time and on budget. Ever some suppliers of PRINCE2 training will advertise with this promise.

Having a passion for project management and as an experienced PRINCE2 trainer, I have great objections to this culture. Delivering on time and on budget is not a goal. Even worse: this attitude will almost certainly make a project fail.

Time and cost are not goals but consequences of a plan. Plans have the nasty property that they are predictions. Unfortunately, us humans are not very good predicting the future.

Prediction is difficult- particularly when it involves the future

Mark Twain

Even when a plan is well designed, there will always be unexpected, so unplanned events (issues) causing the project to deviate from the plan. Soldiers have been aware of this for years:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

A good project manager is also aware of this fact. Certainly a provider of PRINCE2 training should be aware.

Business Case

The goal of a project should be described by a Business Case. A Business Case is, on the lowest level, a cost/benefits analysis. It supplies an assessment of the justification of the investment of a project by assessing the future benefits compared to the expected cost of development (project costs) and the future operational cost of the situation after the project. It is also only in this context where deadlines are relevant.

This PRINCE2 way of thinking is quite unique. In by far the majority of approaches to project management there is hardly any attention for the justification of a project; there is only attention for the project control itself; for the delivery of the work. This has a lot to do with the traditional attitude that a project is delivered by a supplier. The customer doesn’t have to bother themselves too much. A customer orders, receives and pays the bill. In that supplier-driven view it is no more than logical that most focus is on time and cost. Because: contract is contract.

PRINCE2 is a customer’s method

But PRINCE2 is an approach for the customer to control a project based on the question: is it worth it? A project should be directed based on the continuous justification that can only be determined by the customer. A project will be assessed as an investment, not as a cost.

That is why time and cost are not goals but consequences of (the execution of) a plan. Within the context of the justification (Business Case), time and cost are factors that support the project’s justification or the lack it.

A main reason for failing projects

Unfortunately in the real world there is an often-unfounded focus on time and money. There is a dominant culture of believe that “on time” and “on budget” is all that counts. But without exception this will lead to low quality resulting in decreased benefits. Also the cost of maintenance and other operational cost will be a lot higher. In the context of a Business Case, focus on time and cost will lead to poor results and often even to failure.

In our organization we have a model project. We are told that all new projects should learn from this project because it was extremely successful.

But the deliverables were never used...

Comment by a delegate in a PRINCE2 course

Operation successful, patient died

Traditional approaches to project management often don’t discuss this issue. There is also no need to because traditional approaches facilitate only the delivery side of the project by suppliers. This can easily lead to: “operation successful, patient died”. The project was delivered according to the contract but the customer is not satisfied. To prevent this, customers should look at their project in different ways and the PRINCE2 can help.

Consequently, PRINCE2 is not so useful to (internal) suppliers. The approach does not have a lot of added value compared to other approaches. PRINCE2 states: a supplier has a different Business Case from a customer. In fact, the supplier’s Business Case is in conflict to the customer’s: the cost of the customer are the benefits for the supplier.


In this view, the IT-inspired Agile approach is not innovative but rather traditional and consequently risky. By fixing time and cost (time-boxes) quality will be low and will result in lower than expected benefits and higher cost of maintenance. Where predominantly IT-suppliers usually are very positive about Agile, the user-side have very different responses. Without exceptions I hear from users that there is a more frequent delivery but it takes far longer before it finally works.

Focus on time and cost will lead to low quality and lower benefits. The experience from users confirm this view.

Time-boxes could easily have been an invention of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford. Ford’s well-known statement about his response to demands by customers can be seen as the “minimum viable product” in Agile terms. It nearly caused his bankruptcy when competitors were able to be more open to customer’s wishes (quality criteria) and Ford had to change his views.

Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black

Henry Ford

The current Agile movement is basically traditional and not very innovative. And very risky.

The Agile approach even has a term for low quality: Technical Debt. What this really means is that every next sprint will have to spend more effort solving problems of previous sprints (low quality) and will spend less effort working on new functions. Not very effective and very expensive.

A useful, really agile approach will look very different.

Learn from experience

The often-unfounded focus on time and cost shows that not much has been learned from previous experience. The underlying culture is probably stronger than ever. The culture of “on time and on budget” has also entered the PRINCE2 approach mainly thanks to IT-suppliers and IT-specialists, who present and “use” the approach without much knowledge and understanding. An approach that in the core conflicts with their interests.

About the author

Specialist in effective change.

Accredited MSP™ and PRINCE2® trainer.

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