What’s the difference?

There are many similarities between PRINCE2’s Project Brief and PMBOK’s Project Charter. However there are also some key differences. Understanding both will help those familiar with the PMBOK framework to appreciate that the PRINCE2 methodology really isn’t much different. In fact there are some nice additions that can help make our projects a bit less stressful and also more successful.


Section of the PMBOK 5th Edition states that:

The project charter is the document issued by the project initiator or sponsor that formally authorizes the existence of a project and provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.

Appendix A of the PRINCE2 manual states that:

A Project Brief is used to provide a full and firm foundation for the initiation of the project. 

Chapter 12:

Nothing should be done until certain base information needed to make rational decisions about commissioning of the project is defined, key roles & responsibilities are resourced and allocated, and a foundation for detailed planning is available.

Both the PMBOK framework and PRINCE2 methodology agree that establishing firm foundations early in a project helps to increase the chance of success, minimize future misunderstandings and provide a clear direction from the senior management/decision makers around the goals and objectives of the project.

The main difference in purpose is that the approved Project Brief gives the project manager the authority and resources to complete the work necessary for the Initiation Stage in a PRINCE2 project. It does not give authorization to complete the project activities. Another approval is required prior to the acknowledgement and release of funding to begin the delivery of the project products/deliverables. The PRINCE2 Initiation Stage is similar in nature to the primary planning steps that begin most projects.  In the PMBOK world, this planning is the first set of processes AFTER the project is approved.

The high degree of uncertainty in the estimating of time and cost, along with a high level idea of the project scope is evident in both documents. Does it make sense to authorize full delivery of a project based on these high level estimates as the PMBOK suggests? It can create a false sense of confidence and create unrealistic expectations on the part of those who are approving these documents.

In PRINCE2, there is a further set of planning, further elaboration along with another pass at more confident estimates of time and money, prior to the approval for the delivery/execution of the project. PMBOK’s Project Management Plan should be approved prior to beginning project delivery/execution to help key stakeholders understand that the estimates listed in the project charter may have been revised. This helps to manage expectations.


In the PMBOK, the following are listed as inputs to the creation of the project charter.

Project Statement of Work:   This lists the business need; the link to the organizations strategic plan, vision and goals; and the Product Scope Description outlining the product/service/results that the project will be undertaken to create.

Business Case: The necessary information from a business standpoint to determine whether or not the project is worth the required investment. It is commonly used for decision making by managers or executives above the project level.

Agreements: such as contracts that have led to the need for this project, Service level agreements or other agreements in place that may influence this project

Enterprise Environmental Factors: such as Government standards & regulations, marketplace conditions

Organizational Process Assets: such as policies, processes, templates & historical information

In PRINCE2, the primary input to the creation of the project brief is called the Mandate. This is the organizational trigger to begin, what PRINCE2 calls, “a minimum amount of work necessary to determine if we have a viable and worthwhile project” (Starting up a Project process).

This mandate could be a previously existing feasibility study, an incoming contract, information from a relevant programme or just some scribbles on a piece of paper.

For both the charter and the brief, the more substantial and current the information coming into their creation, the better the content of these documents will reflect the needs of the project.

The main difference between the charter and brief, is that in PRINCE2, the creation of the business case (in outline form) is part of the project brief. This business case forces the PM to ask questions about WHY this project is needed, the originating business problem/opportunity, the benefits expected after the project is over and information on the chosen solution.  PMBOK references business case as an input and rarely mentions it again throughout the life of a project. It is crucial for the PM to understand the business drivers of a project and how the project result will impact the business areas and generate benefits.


Both the charter and brief contain information relating to:

  • Purpose & justification
  • Success criteria, project approval requirements
  • High level requirements & scope
  • Stakeholders & key decision makers

The primary difference in content between the charter and the brief is the inclusion in the project brief of the business case.  Another key piece of information specifically mentioned in the project brief is the project approach. The project approach consists of two main areas.

First, approach to delivery of the project. For example, will be use an external solution provider or building the solution in house; will be create something unique or modify something that already exists.

Second is the approach to implementation or handover. For example, will be use a staged handover to certain geographical areas as the project progresses; will the solution be handed over “big bang” at the end of the project; or will we be more agile and use a “release” approach as the project progresses.

This approach will have a substantial impact on the scoping and scheduling of the project.

Paul Atkin