I finally got round to studying for my MSP (managing successful programmes) exams over the Christmas holidays, and am happy to say I passed earlier this month. I was keen to take these exams to give more formal structure to my management of collections of interdependent projects. Whilst the MSP framework is designed for managing massive, multi-million pound programmes, it can equally be a useful tool for management on a smaller scale. I’ve taken away a number of things that I will apply at work – not least the main differences between programmes and projects that you need to be sensitive to.
There are plenty of courses out there that you can take where a trainer will prepare you and put you through the two exams (Foundation and Practitioner) within about 5 days. I chose to study at home independently – always my preference so that I can move at my own pace and take more time if necessary – and to take the exams at home via an online proctor. All you need is the MSP approved manual and a couple of practice exam papers. I downloaded my exam papers for free by signing up to a profile on the Axelos (exam provider) website. You can download copies of both foundation and practitioner past papers here. For me, doing past papers is always the best way to study, with the “rationale” sections being particularly handy, because they teach you the logic behind the questions. I took my exam through CUPE as usual (you can see more on them in my other posts) which was delivered via PeopleCert.
How to study for the exams
In total, I spent about 3 full days (30 hours) studying for these exams and I passed both on my first attempt. This was my method:
1. Skim read the manual’s three core sections.
- Introduction – explanation of the main differences between projects and programmes. A key difference which underlines the entire approach to programme management is that projects focus on outputs, programmes focus on outcomes (and benefits). You also learn the Programme Management Principles (learn these by heart): Remaining aligned with corporate strategy, leading change, envisioning and communicating a better future, focussing on the benefits and threats to them, adding value, designing and delivering a coherent capability, learning from experience.
- Governance Themes – Contains a chapter each on the governance themes, which are guiding lights as you run a programme. Most of the exam papers’ content is the Governance themes and the Transformational flow, so it’s worth reading certain parts carefully. Pay particular attention to roles and responsibilities of each person in the programme team in these sections. The themes are: Programme organisation, vision, leadership and stakeholder engagement, benefits management, blueprint design and delivery, planning and control, the business case, risk and issue management, quality and assurance management. Some familiar concepts (to those project managers amongst you) pop up that you’ll have already learned studying for your PRINCE2, like risk responses, the issue management cycle etc.
- The Transformational Flow – the programme lifecycle. This section takes you through the different stages and what needs to happen in each. There are lots of questions on this section – pay attention to what documents are produced and when. Pay attention to what information is contained in what document. Pay attention to the programme team members’ roles in each stage of the cycle. Cycle is: Identifying a programme, defining a programme, managing the tranches (which encapsulates delivering the capability and realising the benefits) and closing a programme.
2. Skim read Appendix A.
This contains a list of the documents produced during a programme’s life. It’s incredibly useful for the practitioner exam as many of the questions relate to what information is contained in which document, and whether or not an item is relevant to be contained within a certain document.
3. Take practice exam papers (timed) and then mark referring to the rationale.
This is the point where you discover how much (and what) you didn’t take in on your first read. I read quite thoroughly so I did okay on the papers . I then went back through very slowly (it will take you hours!) carefully reading each question, answer, and the rationale as to why the answer was correct (or not). The incorrect answers often give you more information than the correct one. The same questions or content often come up time and again so it’s worth really spending time on this step and reading the rationales carefully.
4. Re-read weak sections in the manual.
Go back to the book and look again at the sections you struggled with. On my first go, I didn’t realise how much emphasis would be put on the roles and responsibilities of the SRO, PM and BCM, as well as the contents of all of the documents produced. I spent several hours going back over that material. For the practitioner exam, it’s enough to just know where to find your answers in the manual (you will realistically never remember the sheer volume of information by rote).
The MSP Foundation Exam
This exam is closed book, and you have 1 hour. It’s multiple choice, with 75 questions. 5 of those will not be marked (they’re samples to test out questions for future papers). You need 35 or more (50%) to pass.
There are broadly three types of questions:
- Which is correct
- Which is MOST correct or which BEST describes xyz
- “2 statement” questions where you have to say is both, neither or only 1 is correct.
Just pay attention to the question type and don’t let the “which is MOST correct” ones trip you up, as many of the answers will be correct.
The paper will cover high level type questions like “which is a principle of Programme Management” as well as questions specific to certain of the Governance Themes and certain of the stages in the Transformational Flow. Your preparation above should have been sufficient to prepare you for this paper. I didn’t find the real one too bad once I’d done the practice and gone through the rationale.
The MSP Practitioner Exam
I found this exam REALLY hard! Probably one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done and certainly harder than either the PRINCE2 or AgilePM Practitioner exams. The exam is 2.5 hours long, open book (thank god). There are eight questions each worth 10 marks. You need 40 marks out of the total 80 to pass (again 50%).
I think one of the reasons I found it so difficult is that it was so heavily contextualised and just covers such a huge range of information, impossible to learn it all by heart. I found the questions about documentation particularly devilish as they involve your having to wade through a ten bullet point list in the manual of things that could possibly be in a business case and then trying to work out if a sentence applies to any of them… lord.. horrible memories… anyway! Let me try and give you some practical advice for this exam. Honestly, doing the practice paper left me feeling utterly panicked, even though I passed, because I had felt zero confidence about 95% of the answers I’d gone with. I felt the same way about the real paper honestly… I couldn’t have told you if I’d passed or failed before I got the results. I would say trust your gut. Think logically and eliminate wrong answers one by one.
The other thing that makes the MSP exam so hard is the question style, which means you need to get multiple bits of information correct to get the mark. The question styles are as follows:
- Straightforward multiple choice “which is correct”
- Which 2 are correct (read the question REALLY carefully as these can catch you out)
- And then these questions which we all remember from the PRINCE2 Practitioner……
- Tables with Option (A, B, C, D, C), Assertion (True/False), Reason (True/False). And then you get 6-8 questions with two statements and a BECAUSE in the middle i.e “I am going for a walk” BECAUSE “I love painting”, then you have to say which options applies (my silly example would be option B).
Bear in mind that you also have a scenario booklet for this exam. There are 2-3 pages of A4 to read before you start any of the questions. Take maybe 10-15 minutes to read it and take in as much as you can. It will explain the context, what projects are in the programme and the timescales involved. It will probably detail individuals involved in the programme. Once you start the questions, some of them will refer back to extra materials in the scenario booklet. You don’t need to read those extra materials until you start each question (I’d advise you don’t, as it’s just information overload!).
There will be a page at the start of the exam which tells you what topics the exam will cover. Each of the 8 questions will cover a different Governance Theme or Transformational Flow process. Don’t be fooled by this though – there are TONS of questions about documents and roles which I didn’t feel were made particularly obvious in the manual in any of those sections – that’s why I’d recommend you re-read Appendix A and the “Key Roles” section at the end of each Governance Theme chapter and Transformation Flow chapter. You’ll need to refer back to them many times during the exam too. The “Programme Organisation” Governance Theme chapter is probably also worth re-reading in full before taking the exam – it covers the roles in detail.
I had plenty of time in the exam – I finished with about 40 minutes to spare and then spent about 25 of them going back over any questions I had flagged (you can put a digital mark against any question by clicking a flag icon). My advice to you would be, move through the paper as quickly as you can, go with logic and your best guess, but if a question is taking a while, answer your best guess and flag it. Then spend the time at the end going back over and really really rereading those flagged ones.
Go forth, and manage some programmes!
I hope this has helped to inform you what to expect when taking the programme management MSP exams. As always, I’m more than happy to answer any specific questions – just ping me through the contact page!