rolling wave planning

Rolling Wave Planning: Cross That Bridge on Approach

If you have a project to plan, but some important information you need to complete the planning is not available yet – don’t worry: rolling wave planning can help you out. This technique involves crossing that bridge when you come to it. It will let you do your job, accumulating all the necessary details on your way to the goal. In other words, it allows you to plan while working. It’s different from the traditional waterfall approach, but definitely worth considering.

Here we’ll discuss the rolling wave planning principle and how it works in project management.  

What is rolling wave planning in project management?

Rolling wave planning is a project management technique that breaks the work planning process into smaller waves or time periods, which makes it easier for the team to accommodate project changes. It focuses on iterative work and frequent updates. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) provides the following definition of rolling wave planning:

“Rolling wave planning is an iterative planning technique in which the work to be accomplished in the near term is planned in detail, while work further in the future is planned at a higher level.”

According to PMBOK, rolling wave planning is possible with various levels of details depending on what point of planning you’re at. At the early stage of strategic planning, there is a little amount of defined information, so the work package can be decomposed into smaller levels of known details. As the situation becomes clear, these levels of details can be transformed into actual activities; and as the project progresses, the list of these activities can be updated.

Rolling wave planning example

A good example of rolling wave planning could be a situation when you are expected to finish your project in one year but the planning can be done only for the first three months – because you do not have a visible final goal, or you’re unsure about the resources, or because you don’t have enough information.

At this point, you cannot say for sure what the daily work of the team members will look like after the first three months pass. However, using the rolling wave technique, you can plan these first three months, and then add more details as the project unfolds. This way, project managers can use rolling wave planning to estimate costs and risks, reducing uncertainties and allowing more flexibility.   

However, for this technique to be productive, project managers must provide a list of milestones and assumptions.     

Rolling wave planning can be very helpful for the following projects:

  1. On agile projects since agile project management is based on an iterative approach to planning.
  2. For projects without specific goals or timelines. Working by phases, you can naturally get to see the bigger picture, without forcing the events.  
  3. When planning data is not available. This is why it will be appropriate for software development projects, as well as for research and development projects (since they are focused on exploring and discovering new products and services).
  4. For innovative projects as they require the ability to look for hidden opportunities and respond to challenges.

Progressive elaboration vs rolling wave planning

The terms “rolling wave planning” and “progressive elaboration” can sound confusing. So let’s explain what exactly each of them stands for.

Progressive elaboration is a process of making a plan more specific, continuously improving it and adding new details as information becomes available. As the project evolves, it becomes more elaborate. According to “The PMBOK Guide”, there are two forms of progressive elaboration – rolling wave planning and prototypes. In other words, progressive elaboration is just a broader term that covers rolling wave planning as one of its expressions.

In rolling wave planning, details are planned for work that is going to be done in the near future, and the details for future work are planned only at a higher level (managers). What concerns prototypes, this is a technique which consists in getting feedback on requirements providing a model of the future product when the product is not actually built yet.  

So as we can see, despite some misunderstanding, progressive elaboration and rolling wave planning are not opposite to each other – they are rather interdependent.  

Benefits of rolling wave planning

  1. Establishing priorities. In rolling wave planning, you can see all the tasks and milestones. This allows everyone working on a project to clearly understand the immediate priorities, this way letting them see the correlation between short-term tasks and the overall final goal.
  2. Creating accountability. Detailed information about short-term phases develops transparency between the team and stakeholders, which increases accountability. Team members know what they are expected to do every day.
  3. Shortening timelines. With rolling wave planning, the team does not have to wait for the managers to plan each and every phase of the project. Besides, completing the project phase by phase makes the whole project more manageable and long-term goals – more achievable.
  4. More opportunities for innovation. Getting new information in the course of work, the team may see new creative solutions which they would probably not notice working to a stable plan. This also encourages adaptability, since innovation often means new challenges.
  5. Flexibility while managing risks. Planning the whole project from the beginning till the end, it’s impossible to predict all risks that may arise in the process of work. This may cause a lot of confusion. Rolling wave planning gives you some control – risks are easier to handle if you assess them by iterations.

Disadvantages of rolling wave planning

A serious disadvantage of the rolling wave planning method is the possibility to face huge unexpected challenges which you are not ready to deal with. Even though rolling wave planning can help with risk management, in some cases, it can also increase the risks and cause issues.

This is why you should not use this technique working on very important and huge projects: a mistake can lead to the losses of money invested, and even worse, impact the environment or even safety.

Eduardo Levenfeld, a CEO at bitPerk.io, provides the following example: 

“If you have to build a huge nuclear plant, it’s safer to spend much money and effort on planning the whole project, because you have no right for mistake – a wrong move could cause horrible problems, both for the environment and for human lives.”

How to do rolling wave planning

Rolling wave planning is conducted in the following steps:

  1. Identify project requirements. Build a work breakdown structure (WBS) – split the project into work items, identifying project priorities and requirements, as well as roles and responsibilities. It also involves discussing budgets and connections among tasks.
  2. Divide the project into phases. Consider the milestones – completed tasks that demonstrate the progress. Estimate the length of each phase to determine the expected overall timeline. 
  3. Plan the first iteration (also called a “wave”). Make a list of tasks team members are expected to do during this phase. Establish deadlines to let people know how much time they have. Allocate resources for the first phase.
  4. Plan future phases. The team starts working on the first assignments, and managers must control their work, making sure all the requirements are met. To do so, they can hold meetings to discuss issues and offer suggestions, recording the progress and identifying the risks. While the team is still working on the first project phase, managers can plan future phases, determining the scope, budget, and timeline for future phases. As they get more information, managers should reduce uncertainties in the later project stages.
  5. Continue the iteration process. Once the first iteration is completed, come back to step one to work on the second iteration – this way, the project is continued in circles. Complete the tasks by phase till you achieve the project goals.    
  6. Honestly evaluate your strategy. Discuss the things that worked for you and things that didn’t. Ask team members to provide some feedback (which could be in the form of anonymous surveys). Compare your expectations with actual results. By analyzing the strategy, you can learn important lessons and avoid mistakes in the future, improving your product and the way you produce it.

The level of detail

The work breakdown structure you build at the very start of the project will not contain many details about future phases. The more remote in time the phase is, the less detail you will be able to predict. It can even happen that some phases will not contain any detail at all. However, as you get closer to each next phase, the amount of details will increase, so you will be able to review the phases.  

As we can see, rolling wave planning provides a very realistic level of detail – the possibility that you will achieve what you expect is very high.

Projects can be different, and there is no strategy that would work for every single one. To choose the strategy that would work best for you, think about all the materials, resources, and information you initially have at your disposal. If you already have all the details, feel free to use the traditional planning method. And if you lack some information, you can use the rolling wave principle, working by iterations. Choosing the right strategy, you increase your chances to successfully complete the project.     

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