MSP 5th Edition Evaluation

1.  Introduction

In 2020 Axelos published the 5th edition of Managing Successful Programmes. Because of COVID, only recently in 2022, as a trainer I was made aware of this new edition and had a chance to become familiar with it.

I have been MSP (Advance) Practitioner from 2005 and a MSP Approved Trainer also since 2005 for several training organizations in The Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain.

Also, I have been a PRINCE2 Practitioner and a PRINCE2 Approved Trainer since 2002.

After carefully studying the 5th edition,

  • comparing it to the previous editions I have worked with,
  • after taking the Practitioner exam and
  • after delivering a MSP Foundation/Practitioner course, taking into account the observations of delegates

This evaluation assumes good understanding and knowledge of MSP by the reader. It discusses a number of issues, but only a number of in my view critical issues and not all of my issues.

I felt the need to evaluate the 5th edition and, to a lesser extent, the exams. Hopefully it could be used by Axelos to improve the MSP 5th edition and/or the exams.

2.  The 5th edition

The Preface of the 5th edition pleasantly surprised me. It promised to not ‘delve as deeply’ anymore into some subjects and leave more to the practitioner to tailor to specific needs. Indeed, previous editions went into a lot of details, where it was sometimes questionable if that led to added value for MSP guidance. A shorter new edition with less detail would certainly something I would have recommended myself.

But next I was a bit disappointed when I saw the structure familiar to many guidances from the same family, such as PRINCE2. The structure of 3 times 7 (7 Principles/Themes/Processes) leads to very forced and unnatural chapters and subjects. Tailoring that to the specific method would always something I would prefer, regardless of MSP or e.g. PRINCE2.

Then the contents itself. The names of Principle, Themes and Processes should be largely self-explanatory. As soon as the reader sees the title, he or she should immediately have an idea what the topic should be about. While this largely seems to be the case for the Principle and the Processes, the Themes have very generic titles, giving a first indication that they discuss the topic in a very general and possibly unfocused way. For the themes, the indication turned out to be right. As the Themes often lack focus and clarity, the reader - in this case course delegates - were often confused and lost interest.

The 5th edition uses descriptions of several programmes to clarify their points. This is a very good and welcome concept. I only wished they used more and more extensive examples, also in the chapters about the Processes where there is these examples are not used at all.

Specific issues, the biggest issues

General observations about themes

Looking at the Themes, specifically Themes like Design, Structure and Decisions seemed to be vague and that turned out to be an issue. There are overlaps and these themes were unfocused, probably because these Themes, by the nature of their names needed to be quite general.

Also, going through the list of Themes, I was most unpleasantly surprised that the 4th edition Themes of Leadership and Stakeholder Engagement and Vision had disappeared. These two Themes were for me the centre of successful Programme Management. In fact, I would have preferred to see them back, combined into just one Theme.

The Organization Theme

The next disappointment was the Organization Theme. This Theme surprisingly starts with a paragraph on Risk Appetite. This subject is not so much about the Governance of the programme organization but more about the investing organizations and is therefore a bit confusing and off topic in this theme. During a course, a delegate confirmed my feeling and suggested, as in previous editions and in other methods, a separate Risk Theme.

Next there is a description of the possible organization of a programme and the different roles. There could be an argument about the level of detail, but that should not really be the point since after all this is MSP and the target audience should have a certain understanding.

The real issue are the inconsistencies. To start with the Sponsoring Group and the SRO: compared to previous editions the Sponsoring Group now has a far bigger role than ever, while at the same time the role of the SRO does not make so much sense anymore.

Where previously the SRO was the accountable leader of the programme, very much in charge as the figure head of the programme with a key role in communicating the Vision, in the 5th edition, the SRO is not much more than a filter for the Sponsoring Group. In many practical applications in programmes, I feel this will lead to a lot of meetings and micromanagement by a Sponsoring Group and a largely ineffective SRO.

Then there are issues related to the Programme Board. The 5th edition describes a Programme Board that certainly is an improvement to what the 4th edition described. In that edition the Programme Board was basically an unfocused talking shop with far too many (unnecessary) members. But I still do not see much value in the Programme Board as described by the 5th edition. I still prefer the proposal by the 3rd edition where the Programme Board was seen as an optional Board, with a selection of members from the Sponsoring Group to support an overloaded SRO. This would still be my recommendation.

I was surprised to see the Lead of the programme office as a regular member of the Programme Board. Obviously, this role should be part of the meetings of the Programme Board as an advisory member. But a supporting role as part of decision making? That would go too far in terms of accountability and responsibility.

Also, in general the function of the programme office in relation to other roles of the organization should have been described a lot better. There is simply far more than ‘reports to Programme Board’ and ‘Programme Board ‘delegates authority to’ the programme office (Figure 4.2). The functions of the programme office could be a lot wider and on several levels.

Next, it is not recommendable that roles such as the Programme Manager and the BCM are ‘accountable’ to the Programme Board, a Board where they themselves are members of. How can anyone be accountable to themselves? These roles should be accountable directly to the SRO.

Also, the distinction between the responsibilities of Programme Manager and BCM is less clear than it was before. In the 5th edition, there are a number of shared responsibilities, which is never to be recommended.

The 5th edition also strongly indicates that a programme would have only one BCM, as again one of the course delegates indicated. Obviously in most programmes, this would not be the case. I am sure that the writers of this edition did not intend to indicate only one BCM and the issue is caused by some unfortunate descriptions.


In the Organization Theme there a number of paragraphs were dedicated to Stakeholder Engagements. The main issue for me, seems to be about the Vision Statement. Not only in this Theme but all through the guidance.

The Vision statement is and always was described as an outward facing document, used for communication with large numbers of different stakeholders. But when the guidance is carefully studied, it almost seems like the writers did not really know what to do with the Vision Statement.

  • The Vison is almost entirely delegated to the BCM, which most likely would make it an inward facing ‘document’, only to be used internally by the programme. The Vision should, like in previous versions, primarily be an instrument under the accountability of the SRO used to stakeholders inside and outside the programme.
  • To underpin the previous point, throughout the guidance both in the Design Theme and in the Processes the Vision is described mainly as a step to define the Target Operating Model and the Benefits. In the Processes the Vision is even described as to go through iterations. This indicates a lack of understanding of the function of the Vision Statement. It should be stable and should be used on different levels, but mainly the highest level, to clarify the need for change and to motivate.

Management? Or Leadership?

When going through the guidance, a certain attitude is indicated. When e.g. looking at the descriptions of some role, when noticing discussions about Risk Management in most chapters and when reading the long, extensive and detailed descriptions of financial management, I get the impression that the guidance finds management and control very important, but does not see a lot of importance in Leadership as discussed in previous versions. This could very easily be interpreted as MSP suggesting a bureaucratic approach (there are a number of mentions of detailed, low-level techniques and a lot of mentions of documents!) and largely ignoring the crucial factors of communication and especially leadership, especially when noticing the proposed limited usage of the Vision Statement.

A lot of the guidance from the 4th edition about Leadership, Stakeholder Communication and the Vision is crucially missed in this edition.

The Processes

There is not much of a description of the processes. These chapters are short and don’t contain a lot of information. The assumption is that most of the content is already described in the Themes and the Processes should mostly only reference to the Themes.

No more Defining the Programme

The first thing to notice is that there is no longer a process Defining a Programme, defining the cornerstones of the programme. This not necessarily a bad thing. In both MSP and in PRINCE2 (Initiating a Project), I felt for years already that the way these processes were described, were not always the right way. A circular or iterative way, as now proposed by MSP 5th was in my view largely preferable.

But in some way, an exception should be made for the most stable parts of the programme (project). The main example is the way MSP discusses an iterative development of the Vision in the Design the Outcomes Process; it simply does not work. Not to mention the frequent usage of the word ‘Completed’ rather than in iterative processes.

Sequential Processes?

Looking at the sequential nature of five of the process, raises a lot of questions. It is for instance in any (sizable) project unrealistic to start the Embed the Outcomes Process after all capabilities are being delivered, as the guidance suggests. Several BCM’s should already work on Outcomes and Benefits in the middle of a tranche while only parts of the capabilities have been delivered (as soon as possible).

Then there is also the Process Evaluate New Information. A lot of this process is either already done in other processes or should already have been done there. Just the title of this process already gives a very wrong impression. One of the obvious indications of this structure and this specific process indicates there is no way suggested to handle escalations and premature closure during a tranche. This was also immediately picked up by course delegates and, as predicted, as a trainer I had to do a lot of explaining resulting in raised eyebrows by delegates.

The approach suggested by the used cycle seems to be only appropriate for small programmes (or larger projects) with a limited number of BCM’s and a limited number of (sub)projects.

It is highly recommended to return to the previous process model (4th edition) where Delivering the Capabilities and Realizing the Benefits were presented to run in parallel with each other within a shell of governance: Managing the Tranches.

3.  Conclusion on the 5th edition

The 5th edition is not an improvement. Rather, it is the weakest version of MSP I have ever seen. In the context of a course this edition causes a lot of confusion and discussions and needs a lot of explanation by the trainer, often resulting in dismissal of the guidance by delegates as being too theoretical and too impractical in their programmes.

4.  The exams

In the current format of the Practitioner exams, whether it is MSP or PRINCE2, a lot depends on the interpretation of the question and assumptions of what the examiner is looking for. It is easy to pass the exam but it is next to impossible to get a high score. In my experience this is even more the case with the MSP Practitioner exam.

In the mock exams, offered in courses there are several examples where the question does not seem to have a right answer and the suggested answer is farfetched. There are also examples of questions that seem to have two correct answers. When checking the suggested answer, the motivation for the ‘wrong’ answer is more than weak.

This causes understandable discomfort and frustration with delegates.

This issue is inherent to the current exam format and even worse in real exams than in the mock exams. The issue is also emphasized by the lack of focus, clarity and poor descriptions in the 5th edition. A number of exam questions seem to be subjective and prone to interpretations and assumptions and are judged as simply unfair. Since there is no way to check the answers and the motivation, the uncomfortable feeling of guesswork, rather than objective exam questions remains.

Especially in my case where I passed three Advanced Practitioner exams, the last time (2015) with a 94% score and I am somehow not able to reach a high score in this MSP Practitioner exam. That should surely indicate something is seriously wrong!

Another consideration is the fact that almost every Practitioner question can be answered without knowledge of the scenario but needs a lot of very detailed knowledge of the guidance, even to the level of direct quotes from the book. One wonders if that is appropriate for a Practitioner exam.

5.  Quality matters

Hopefully this evaluation helps to improve quality. I am obviously available for further questions and suggestion.


About the author

Specialist in effective change.

Accredited MSP™ and PRINCE2® trainer.

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