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Are project management certifications are a waste of time?

Written by:
September 2015
Categories: Delivery
Tagged: ,

Reading time estimate Reading time: 14 minutes

I’ve been delivering projects and programmes for over 20 years. During that time, I’ve interviewed countless numbers of people for project management positions. Despite the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed who professed to have Prince2 qualifications, I’ve never met anyone who could tell me what the ethos of Prince2 is (and if you think its ‘Project in Controlled Environments’ you don’t know the answer either!).

In this article I’m going to explain why project management certifications can be a waste of time and money, and what you can do about it, whether you’re looking to get certified or whether you run a project management function. And I might even explain to you what the ethos of Prince2 is.

Before I go any further, I should declare that I do have project management certifications. These include CompTIA: IT Project+ (that takes me back a long way!), Prince2 Practitioner, and Agile PM Practitioner.

So what about you? Are you certified? Did you take a Foundation exam and end your certification path there, or did you go on to become a certified Practitioner?

If you stopped at Foundation level, I guarantee that you know very little, if anything, about that specific methodology.

I once had a member of my team who boasted to me that he didn’t have the time to study for his Prince2 foundation exam, yet crammed the night before, and then passed the following day. He saw this as a great achievement. It took my asking him questions about the methodology for him to realise that he’d learnt very little, and simply tested his short-term memory.

Why get certified in project management methodologies?

When considering certification, people typically fall into one of 3 camps:

  • They want to learn a better way to deliver projects
  • They get certified to increase their value, either to gain a pay rise, stay competitive with colleagues, or seek new employment
  • Their organisation is tied to a specific methodology, and it is mandatory that they are trained in it

Most project management certifications have multiple levels, such as Foundation and Practitioner. And they typically lead on to further study and certification paths, such as Managing Successful Programmes (MSP).

Why certification can be a problem

I’ve seen organisations of all types attempt to implement a project management methodology only to fail. I’ve also seen many people achieve certification, only to become disillusioned some time after, and to eventually ignore much of what they’ve learnt. Here’s why I think this happens:

  1. You get certified, but you’re not in a role that currently requires the skills: This is a frequent and easy mistake to make. With the best intentions you head off to get certified. If you’re lucky, the investment is made by your employer, or you may be choosing to invest your own money. Training in something that you then don’t use results in the knowledge being mostly lost over time. You need to be in an environment where you can immediately put your training to use. (If you are investing your own money recognise that it typically costs more as an individual, as companies can take advantage of bulk purchase discounts. It always pays to shop around, but also research the training organisation to make sure you will receive quality training. Make sure that the fees include exam fees too, and ideally look for an organisation that guarantees a pass, which means they will pay for multiple exam attempts).
  2. Your organisation doesn’t have many, or even any, other people currently certified: It’s very difficult to apply project management methodologies in isolation. Training a single person and then expecting them to introduce the methodology into your organisation is a fast route to failure. You need a small team trained in a methodology in order to have critical mass.
  3. Your organisation chooses to create it’s own methodology: As a consultant I’ve seen this many times. The organisation will often make a glib statement, such as, ‘Our methodology is based on Prince2’. Now if you’re a multi-billion dollar company you might be able to justify this investment, and to craft a methodology that can be followed by enough people such that it can be adopted, adapted and enhanced over time. But for most organisations this is a poor strategy. In fact I once worked with a charity who had paid another consultancy a six figure sum to develop a project management methodology unique to them. In my opinion their approach to project management sucked – it was incredibly bureaucratic.

Aren’t all project management methodologies bureaucratic?

This has long been the most common criticism of project management methodologies. It often comes from those that prefer the action and excitement of a JFDI methodology (if you don’t know what JFDI means I’ll leave you to do the Google search).

It can also come from organisations where they’ve sent someone to be trained in a methodology, and then expected them to be able to apply it in-house on their own. Often with little assistance or the benefit from someone experienced in its real-world application. If you train in any methodology the natural tendency is to immediately apply as much of it as possible so as to ensure the training sinks in. This is not a wise way to attempt to adopt a methodology for your organisation.

If you were to run a project using a methodology such as Prince2, and you were to apply every last bit of the methodology, using each and every technique (such as product based planning in Prince2), then yes, I suspect your project would be very bureaucratic.

Let’s use an analogy here: if you had a dripping tap and you called a plumber, you wouldn’t expect him to use every tool in his toolbox to fix the tap. You would expect him to identify the tools he needed to get the job done in the fastest, most affordable way, and to an appropriate level of satisfaction (that’s the TQB triangle – something I’ll talk about in a future blog post). You wouldn’t expect him to use every tool in his toolbox just because they were available to him.

Project management methodologies should be seen as toolkits. You use the minimum tools required that are relevant to your situation and to your organisation.

Do you really need a methodology?

I worked for a small global consultancy for nearly 7 years. The core business of the consultancy was project and programme management. No formal methodology was adopted, and lip service was paid to Prince2. Access to online training was made available, along with funding for Foundation level exams only. Within the project and programmes team there were very few who were certified practitioners in any methodology. I should also note that this was the biggest of the consultancy teams, and generated tens of millions in annual revenue. On the surface, this was a successful team and a successful organisation.

So how was it so successful without a formal approach? The answer lies in the fact that what it really had was a group of very good Team Leaders. The people in this team were very effective at getting people to do stuff. This often meant rolling up their own sleeves. They created a great sense of camaraderie, and in the muck and bullets they showed that they could get stuff done.

However, under the surface things weren’t quite so good. The costs of projects frequently overran. Clients would query payments due to late filing of invoices and a lack of project files to back up those invoices. I recall one instance where a client negotiated nearly £400k off of their bill!

Because the team had to work to tight deadlines that could not be missed, they often focused on the euphoria of the deadline. Little value was paid to doing things that mattered later, or were less obvious at the time. Whether that was billing the project in question, or creating lessons learned to deliver in a more consistent, repeatable, and predictable manner.

This is an all too common problem with project management teams, whether internal to an organisation, or external consultants. They focus their PM skills heavily upon team leadership, rather than balancing team leadership and motivational skills with prudent management of time, quality (scope), and budget.

When things get really busy with your projects, do you become a great team leader who mucks in and drops all formal discipline, such as managing your risks and issues logs and project plan, or are you one of the rare few who is able to maintain your role as project manager?

Should you bother with certification?

That depends on your motivation. If you want to become a better project manager then you should firstly learn from your peers, combined with on-the-job experience. As soon as practicable you should expand that knowledge through formal training. Having some prior experience will make the formal training much easier, as you will be able to apply the theoretical knowledge to scenarios you’ve experienced for real.

In respect to how to train, i.e. on-line, classroom, books, etc. – choose what works best for you. Personally, I prefer to study at my own pace rather than in a classroom. I’ve achieved over 15 certifications and qualifications through this approach and it works well for me.

My motivation to certify was based on different things at different times. I started project managing at 21. I loved project management and wanted to learn how to do it better, and Prince2 was the major certification to have. At that time I was also a Contractor and I wanted to do whatever I could to make my CV stand out, and to maximise the day rates I could achieve. Then came the IT downturn of 2002, where if you didn’t have certified skills you didn’t have a job. So Prince2 Practitioner was essential for me.

When I completed my Agile PM certification in 2013, I was driven to do it because I was working on a major Agile transformation for a legal sector client. Agile approaches are very relevant today and I saw value beyond that one project.

Should my organisation adopt a project management methodology?

Like all business challenges, the first place to start is to identify what problems you are trying to solve, or what goals you are trying to achieve. Investing in adoption of a project management methodology should be tested with a Business Case. What outcomes are you hoping to achieve? When is the investment likely to provide a return?

If your projects are continually running over time, cost, or delivering under quality, than a project management methodology might be of benefit to you. Senior stakeholders should be trained to a relevant level, and to justify taking a slice of their time there needs to be a clear justification provided in business language i.e. if we spend £X 000’s on PM training we believe we can reduce project delivery time by 10%, reduce business risks by 15%, and save £Y hundreds of thousands over Z years.

Should you certify in a waterfall methodology, such as Prince2, or an agile one, such as Agile PM?

The answer to this question is one of relevance. You should identify which style of project management is most relevant to the project challenges in your organisation. Or if you are looking to change jobs, identify what the most popular methodology is in your target organisation or sector. Waterfall is not currently flavour of the month, but waterfall projects aren’t going to disappear any time soon. In some sectors, such as construction, an agile approach would be wholly inappropriate.

Agile can be seen as lacking discipline., and I think this will result in growing demand for ‘agile’ capable project managers.

As an organisation how can we make our investment in project management methodologies worthwhile?

Train staff in what they’ll get to use

Don’t train your staff in a popular certification just to keep them motivated. If you train them in Agile PM, but yet as an organisation you don’t do agile projects, or you haven’t trained the business or senior IT stakeholders, then you’re only likely to demotivate your staff as they find they can’t put their new skills to use. This results in your staff member looking for a new job. It also encourages organisations to think that training staff is the fastest way to lose good people. I once worked in an organisation like this. It was paranoid about training people. But in the end this belief was the biggest reason why they lost staff, and partly why morale was low.

Train a wide selection of stakeholders

You need to train more than your project managers in the methodology. Senior project stakeholders need to understand the respective methodology, if only at a high-level. They need to know what to expect, and what their roles are in the delivery of projects. It is unfair to leave it all to the project manager.


We currently find ourselves in the Information Age and in the Knowledge Economy. You need knowledge to survive and thrive, and you must also adopt a view of life-long learning. There’s no such thing as ‘done’ when it comes to learning and certifications. You must always be pushing to learn and know more. But, there’s little point in training yourself in a methodology that you are not going to put to instant use – unless of course you plan to get a new job where you need to demonstrate a level of understanding (which certification at the right level can provide).

As an organisation, train your staff, but also provide an environment where they can put that training to immediate and good use. Ensure senior stakeholders have a relevant level of understanding so that they can provide maximum support. Only adopt a methodology if you can identify in advance what the return on investment will be, and over what period of time.

And remember, gaining certification is like passing a driving test. You might be certified to drive, but in reality you’ve only really learnt how the controls of the car work, and what a few road road signs mean. You still lack experience. You haven’t yet made enough mistakes to know what to avoid in future! Certification is a useful milestone on your path to project management mastery. Go forth, make mistakes, and become all the better for it!

The Ethos of Prince2

Oh, and the ethos of Prince2? “Management by exception”. It’s about setting tolerances on time, quality (scope), and budget, and working within those tolerances. Once a project is predicted to fall outside of those tolerances the project is in an exception state and the Project Manager no longer has the authority to proceed.


If you’d like help with implementing a project management methodology, or you’d like to improve your organisations project delivery capability, get in touch.

If you would like help with your career direction our coaching services might be appropriate for you. Get in touch to find out of there’s any current coaching slots available.

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