Look to Rolling Wave Planning for Projects that Require an Agile Approach

Considering implementing rolling wave planning into your project management approach? Find out if it’s a good fit for your project and how you can get started.

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Imagine trying to plan an end-of-season celebration for a sports team. You know who the key players are, where you want to host the party, and some of the activities to schedule during the party. However, until the sports season is over, you won’t know if you are celebrating a championship or a year of rebuilding for a team that ends up in the bottom half of the standings.

While you can set specific deadlines for planning and report an estimated number of attendees as the party nears, you will still need to leave some of the details open-ended. You will have to wait to determine the theme and overall focus until the season unravels and you have a better handle on the end result.

That’s almost how rolling wave planning works. It’s about project planning and organization. It’s about flexibility and knowing that changes may occur since not all the details are known — and won’t be understood — until they are revealed, based on the outcomes.

Overview: What is rolling wave planning?

Rolling wave planning is a form of progressive planning. It is the process of project planning in waves as a project progresses and details that lead into the next steps emerge. For those familiar software projects, this process can be compared to agile software development approaches such as scrum. In general, the work to be completed in the near-term is based on high-level assumptions, and the project is set on milestones.

Overall, this rolling plan is a project management approach that is most useful when the information needed to plan future work in detail is predicated on successfully completing the previous project phases. This technique may also help shorten the time it takes to complete the project.

For example, you may plan to complete a project within an outlined scope of work within 12 months. However, you only have clarity on the first three months of the project. To get started, you plan for the first three months, and then as the project progresses, you can begin rolling out the plans for the remainder of the timeline.

The rolling wave planning approach is all about creating work packages and then breaking out the details as the project unfolds. The need for milestones and checkpoints remain essential for success, and the work package details may be completed more quickly than anticipated.

Rolling wave planning also uses progressive elaboration, which is a way of continuously improving and detailing a plan as more specific information and accurate estimates are available. It enables the project management team to define the work and details as the project evolves.

Three benefits of rolling wave planning

For planners who love getting into the details, this process may seem a bit foreign and even uncomfortable. For big-vision thinkers, this process invites creativity and innovation. Overall, this approach can be beneficial for specific products and industries, and it leaves the door open for collaboration and, potentially, a better end product.

Here are three main benefits of rolling wave planning and how it may lead to a better result.

1. Can shorten project timelines

While a project may have a specific timeline at its inception, rolling wave planning often shortens project timelines through ongoing evaluations and adjustments.

Shortening a project timeline may seem counterintuitive, but projects can be shortened by:

  1. Making it possible for productive activities to begin without waiting for every detail of the project work to be determined in advance
  2. Eliminating downtime for additional planning in the middle of a project since planning is continuous
  3. Course correcting as the project progresses without going too far in the wrong direction
  4. Reducing the time required to develop the schedule and budget planning where it may seem challenging to do so with limited information

A resource-loaded schedule can help manage timelines by providing a visual representation of project resource availability. The schedule shows when resources are allocated to activities and offers insight into whether or not resources may be available when needed. This can help improve the efficiency of using resources for various projects and increasing productivity.

When it comes to budgeting, a time-phased budget or undistributed budget will allow for flexibility, but also requires management throughout. Therefore, the need to stay updated and in constant communication remains paramount. But on the plus side, this often creates smoother transitions and the ability to take action sooner.

2. Supports invention and innovation

As mentioned above, rolling wave planning is similar to the agile approach of software development, which is often driven by research and innovation.

The rolling wave process allows for course correction as new information is brought to the team and risks are identified. Problem-solving often happens at a quicker pace and there is room for invention and “better ways of doing things” due to the flexibility and adaptability within the open format.

3. Encourages adaptability and planning for projects that have changing scope or an extended timeline

A bigger project’s long-term plan may seem more manageable by leaving some details open-ended and creating short “sprints” of focus. For instance, when you look at an entire staircase and think about how challenging it will be to get to the top, you may feel overwhelmed and want to stop before you even start.

Rolling wave planning makes each step seem like its own mini-project, and when the process is broken down into smaller chunks, it makes it much easier to tackle. It’s the approach of taking it one step at a time rather than trying to tackle the whole staircase at once.

However, also be aware of scope creep, which is when new information is presented or requested, and it changes the project scope. This can be due to issues that pop up or based on a client’s request. While this isn’t always a bad thing, you want to be sure the project lead is in charge of scope management and can catch the “creep” and plan for adjustments.

How to implement rolling wave planning

Suppose you are considering implementing a rolling wave planning approach to your projects. In that case, you want to determine the feasibility of the process based on the team players, team structure, available resources, and project type.

If the team can thrive through this approach and the project scope has complexities, dependencies, and some degree of uncertainties, it may be worthwhile to give it a shot.

Here are a few steps you can take to implement rolling wave planning into your project management.

1. Identify specific details for the upcoming work and create the work breakdown structure

The most important part of the process is identifying the specifics of the project and outlining the unknowns or dependencies. You can achieve this through the WBS, or work breakdown structure.

For example, you should identify the projected outcomes, offer insight into the final deliverables, and understand the details of “success.” Then break the tasks down to understand what should be completed and the knowns/unknowns.

Also, if this is the first time any team members are participating in this process, ensure they understand the expectations, benefits, and how it works at both a high level and from their point of view.

2. Divide the project into phases

Since the project is likely to have a more drawn out timeline, break the project down into project phases and group the work into each stage. While all the details of each phase will not be available at first (because they depend upon the completion of previous steps), the phases can be more like milestones and outline the deliverables you must reach.

For example, if we are back to talking software, then let’s present the idea of a software MVP (most viable product) launch. The MVP is the simplest form of the final design and contains all the requirements — or the must-haves. Therefore, one of the milestones will be to launch the MVP, which may be at the end of the first phase.

Now, work backward from that milestone to determine the previous steps required to build and launch the MVP. Then determine, at a high level, how the MVP will move into the second phase to continue improving. That phase will be when the nice-to-haves are added and the product closes in on the ultimate vision.

In some ways, compare this to a reverse engineering approach. Outline the end goal and figure out what it will take to get there.

3. Outline the details of each phase

As the project phases are identified, outline as much detail as possible about what should be accomplished in each phase. This should be done with an understanding that, as you progress through the timeline into later phases, the details will be more sparse and less specific. But don’t worry; those details will become apparent as the project moves along.

4. Use technology to support the process

Chances are you may already use a project management software system. However, there are various project management software platforms and specific tools that support rolling wave planning and will guide project managers in setting up the project plan.

While there doesn’t seem to be a clear leader in rolling wave planning software platforms, consider looking into platforms such as Wrike. Wrike is very user-friendly, breaks projects down by phases and deliverables, and shows dependencies. It is also great for showing resource allocations for planning and budgeting purposes.

Ride the wave (if it makes sense)

Rolling wave planning is not the best approach for all projects but can prove incredibly valuable for those that meet the requirements. If it works, then go ahead and ride the planning wave.

Remember that the approach may require some education for the project management team. The training will help the team manage the work and the team more efficiently and effectively. And set the team expectations with agility and openness at the top of the priority list. Throughout the timeline, ensure your team is informed.

Be flexible, stay ready to adjust, and allow feedback to help drive the project forward. Follow this approach while implementing best practices, and you will ride the rolling wave to successful project planning and completion.


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