MSP 5th Edition: The What, Where And Why

John Edmonds Axelos

John Edmonds, PPM Portfolio Development Manager at AXELOS, explains the finer details of the MSP framework for better programme management.

Managing Successful Programmes – MSP – is a globally recognized and valued programme management framework. Over the last 20 years it has been adopted across the world, and many private, public and third sector organizations have successfully used the framework in a wide range of situations.

They have discovered how MSP helps them to introduce changes that are aligned with organizational strategy and ensures that the reasons for the changes and the programme vision are effectively communicated and understood.

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What sets it apart from other methodologies?

Well, to begin with, I’d prefer to describe MSP as a framework rather than a methodology, as it is not a rigid set of rules that must be followed. MSP is, and always has been, a guide to best practice programme management, not a methodology.

What sets it apart? Well, for a start, MSP is unique in being a focused guide to programme management. It doesn’t see programme management as a more ‘grown up’ version of project management – that isn’t its starting point.

MSP is a framework that enables organizations to lead investments in change that will achieve positive outcomes and realize tangible benefits.

Yes, the links with project management are clearly very important, as it is a vitally important aspect in the delivery of the required new capabilities. But programme management is not a ‘type’ or variant of project management, and MSP makes that very clear.

Who should be using it and why?

There are a range of different audiences for MSP and each will come to the framework with different requirements, and each will find elements of the guide that will specifically equip them to carry out their roles more effectively.

Starting with the obvious candidates – programme managers. This is the role that is entrusted with day-to-day leadership of a programme, and so MSP will give them the structure and focus that they require to be successful in that role.

MSP will give them guidance in designing and planning a programme, monitoring and controlling the delivery of new capabilities, managing risks and resolving issues at programme level, engaging stakeholders, and creating appropriate working relationships with other key members of the programme team.

The senior responsible owner (SRO) is the role within MSP that carries overall accountability for the success of the programme. It is not a role to be treated ‘lightly’ by, for example, simply attending a monthly progress meeting. To be in a position to carry out their programme duties effectively, the SRO needs to clearly understand the structure and guidance that MSP brings. Without it, the likelihood is that they will struggle with the complexity and range of their responsibilities.

A key role within MSP is the Business change manager (BCM). The BCM role is typically a member of the investing organization’s business operations leadership, that is, someone from ‘business as usual’.

They are given overall responsibility for the successful day-to-day adoption of new capabilities within the investing organization in order that they will eventually see the realization of benefits. As someone from the ‘business-side’ it is important that they too should understand and use MSP to be fully effective in the role.

The three roles mentioned so far – the programme manage, SRO and BCM – could be described as the three key roles in the programme team. However, there are other roles that would benefit from understanding and using MSP. These include:

  • Programme office manager/lead
  • Programme assurance teams
  • Organizational change managers
  • Business unit personnel.

And finally, a role that would benefit greatly from using MSP is that of the project manager. I said earlier that programme management is not project management; it has a different focus and demands a range of different skills and abilities (albeit that there are also similarities).

Yet there is much to be gained by a project manager in learning and understanding the perspectives that MSP brings, even if she or he never became a programme manager.

They would have a wider grasp of the environment in which projects could be operating, a more strategic viewpoint on the role their projects are playing, and a range of other concepts that would increase their effectiveness as a project manager.

What has changed with the update?

The 5th edition has seen quite a number of changes, with updated content and terminology throughout. That said, the overall structure of MSP is clearly recognizable, with the framework of principles, themes and processes retained.

There are some elements of the previous edition that are also clearly addressed in the 5th edition. These are:

  • Vision – and the purpose and characteristics of a vision statement
  • Benefits – this remains an MSP principle and is a thread that runs through the whole guidance in a variety of ways
  • Risks – they are treated in a similar way in that they are addressed in several, rather than one, place
  • Organization structure and roles – the well-established roles of senior responsible owner, programme manager, business change manager, sponsoring group, programme board and programme office are maintained and reinforced. Other roles are also addressed appropriately
  • Business Case – its links with benefits and funding are now very clearly addressed
  • Blueprint – now retitled as target operating model with further explanation of its use
  • Stakeholder engagement – and communications planning is refreshed and updated.
  • The programme lifecycle, previously called the Transformational Flow, is refreshed and the incremental nature of a programme is stressed. The progressive delivery of beneficial outcomes is ensured throughout each process.

Some of the key changes include:

  • The principles have been re-written. Inspiration has been taken from the previous edition’s set of principles, and much of the emphasis of that set can be seen in the 5th edition.
  • There are now seven themes rather than the nine in the previous edition, and they are renamed Themes rather than Governance Themes as the whole set (and in fact the entire framework of MSP) provides governance. The themes are introduced with a discussion on programme and corporate governance, and their relationship. Programme strategy and programme plans are then introduced. All themes are described with one word which, as has been shown with PRINCE2, helps clarify the purpose and contribution of them. Each theme chapter also expresses the key relationships with the MSP principles, the key roles and responsibilities, and the key information needed to support the theme. This means that it all gives very practical guidance for the reader.
  • There are now seven processes in the programme lifecycle which has a controlled start (identify the programme process) and a controlled end (close the programme process). Between these points, it is a cyclical lifecycle.
  • The number of appendices has been reduced to just one, as it is important that MSP is a usable guidance. Often, additional information can be a distraction that takes focus away from the core. Therefore, only the minimum amount required is included. Content from previous appendices has been considered in preparing information in the new themes. The aim is that this will encourage the flexible use and appropriate tailoring of MSP, and avoid the prescriptive feel of over-detailed templates.

Why has this come about and in what ways will it improve MSP?

There has been a lot of research published that reports on the high failure rate of programmes, be they transformation programmes or large-scale ‘specification-led’ ones.

The digital revolution, the speed of change, the rise of Agile ways of working, and the increased volatility and uncertainty of all aspects of life mean that programme management must evolve to meet these demands.

AXELOS’s own research also demonstrated that there are widespread misconceptions about what programme management is (and therefore what MSP is). Many saw it as simply a bigger version of project management, just with several projects rather than one.

This edition clarifies again that programme management is not project management, whilst at the same time offering guidance that many project managers (and, of course programme managers, organizational managers and a wide variety of other roles) will find of value.

When updating guidance there can be a tendency to simply add new material to the existing content, resulting in more rather than better guidance. Instead, the decision was taken to go back to basics and challenge every aspect of MSP to ensure that its inclusion was required and contributed to the guidance being fit for purpose now and for some years to come.

The research and consultation undertaken produced a wide variety of input, as might be expected. However, it became clear that in response to the transformation challenges facing all organizations, MSP must also be transformed.

This is so that it can contribute to the way in which organizations invest in response to their changing circumstances and enable them to realize tangible outcomes and benefits from their investment in programmes.

What advice would you give to organisations that want to adopt MSP?

First, be clear on the reason or reasons for using MSP: innovation and growth, organizational re-alignment, efficient delivery and/or effective delivery.

Second, make sure there is commitment to using the MSP framework to set up governance of the change. A look at the questions in each of the approach sections in the seven themes will make it clear what you need to do, and what you can tailor to meet specific needs.

One critical part of this is being clear about roles and responsibilities related to the change – not only in the temporary programme team, but also in the permanent organisation where the changes will be adopted to realise benefits.

Third, have confidence that following MSP is based on leading thinking and practice.

The team that shaped this new version are all practitioners and realise the importance of MSP in providing the bridge between the project view of the world and the strategic, organisational view. If you follow MSP you can be sure you’ll be addressing all things that matter when shaping and delivering beneficial change.

Where can readers do to find out more?

Find out more on the Axelos website:

PM Today Contributor
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