Rolling Wave Planning In Project Management

When you manage projects regularly, you will over time come to understand that project management is not an exact science. There are lots of variables that you have to deal with.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to project management as it is a diverse science with different guides, tools, and methodologies.

While you may know that every project requires planning, you also need to know that there are different ways this planning may be done depending on the project methodology.

Rolling wave planning is one technique of planning projects you need to know as a project manager, especially if you are preparing for your Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exams.

As a project manager, it is your responsibility to tailor the various processes and methodologies according to the nuances of the project in the best possible way to ensure project success.

Project Development Life Cycle

The development life cycle is a process of planning, building, testing, and deploying a product, service, or result. It could be using a predictive (plan-driven), adaptive (change-driven), or hybrid model.

Although a lot of project managers prefer using a plan-driven model like the waterfall model, which is the traditional project management methodology, a lot of projects may require a different style.

The development life cycle of a project can be plan-driven or change-driven. Traditional project management is a style that is plan-driven. Here, there is a predictive life cycle. Scope, schedule, and cost are determined in detail during initiation and planning.

There are project managers that prefer to update the project plans as the project evolves. This is the change-driven methodology. The project development life in this case could be incremental or iterative.

For projects with an incremental development life cycle, the project/product is developed in a series of iterations increasing functionality. An example of this is building a website.

For projects with an iterative development life cycle like agile methodology, the project scope is developed at a high level. The scope is yet to be detailed and this high-level plan should just be enough for a preliminary schedule and cost estimation.

In agile development life cycle, it involves a fixed schedule and cost. The scope is high-level with the understanding of refinement throughout the life cycle.

Iterations are in short increments to allow change and reprioritization of requirements within the time and budget constraints.

The hybrid development life cycle is a combination of predictive and adaptive development life cycles.

rolling wave planning pmp

Read Also: Kill Point in Project Management

What is Rolling Wave Planning in PMP?

During the initiating process group which is the backbone of the project kickoff, constraints like scope, schedule, and cost are developed at a high level.

However, as the project evolves, through project decomposition and refinement, you have finer details of the project. This is known as progressive elaboration.

Rolling wave planning is a form of progressive elaboration. It is a project management technique where the project is planned in waves as the project progresses and the team has more details.

In this technique, there are frequent updates to the project management plan as iterations go on. The initial plan is not detailed comprehensively, and it gets updated as the project work is ongoing.

Rolling wave planning is a technique used mostly for projects with an adaptive or change-driven development life cycle which is the agile methodology.

While the scope is defined at a high level, the requirements for different project deliverables are detailed before an iteration or sprint based on existing new project data.

When managing a project using the planning wave technique, the scope needs to be well-defined from the initiation of the project. This will help prevent scope creep or gold-plating as the project evolves and plans are elaborated.

Benefits Of Rolling Wave Planning in PMP

Like every project technique, rolling wave planning has its own benefits for different projects.

Since it focuses on short-term planning, it enables team members to be well-informed about the short-term deliverables and goals. It also helps the team buy into the project.

Another benefit of the rolling wave planning technique is that it is helpful when the project faces a lot of uncertainty. Using this technique allows a lot of flexibility in the planning and execution of the project.

Risk is one constraint that every project is sure to face. To ensure project success, risks have to be identified and planned. Risks not identified and planned for can create real issues if they come up during the project.

Managing project risks is easier when this rolling wave planning technique is used, as these threats can be addressed as they come up.

Rolling wave planning is especially useful when enough project data is not available for detailed planning. With this approach, work can start on the near-term deliverables of the project while more project data is gathered for greater insights to plan other work packages.

Rolling wave planning also helps in the elimination of downtime spent exclusively on project planning since a great deal of the planning is done as the project work is executed.

Rolling Wave Planning vs Agile Sprints

While rolling wave planning and agile sprints seem very alike and use the same principle of iterations, they happen to have some differences and different areas of best fit.

In agile methodology, there is a backlog of requirements or tasks. These are called user stories. These stories are prioritized, and the project team pulls tasks from the backlog according to priority.

This task is then rapidly worked on in 1 to 2 weeks. This is known as a sprint. It is very common in software development.

Rolling wave planning on the other is used when there is a specific order to the tasks and work packages like in hardware development.

The rolling wave planning technique is suitable for managing tasks with a set order, with a tight schedule or deadline. Agile sprints are suitable for tasks not focused on order but on functionality.

Rolling Wave Planning vs Progressive Elaboration

Rolling wave planning is actually a form of progressive elaboration where the project plans are updated and detailed as the project progresses. In other words, rolling wave planning is a subset or form of progressive elaboration.

Rolling Wave Planning | Step-By-Step Guide

To properly execute the rolling wave planning technique on your projects, follow this strategic step-by-step guide. As always, keep in mind that processes are to be tailored to fit different projects.

Identify Risks And Requirements

Start off with identifying requirements and risks to the project. It is important to plan for ways to mitigate or deal with these risks if they happen to surface while executing the project.

Project team members should be made aware of these risks and planned ways to mitigate them. They should also be aware of the requirements, how and when they are to be met, and their roles and responsibilities. There should be an outline for the project cycle.

Perform Top-down Planning

Along with your project team, at a top level, develop a preliminary budget, schedule, and required resources.

Use a work breakdown structure to break the project into tasks and deliverables called horizons. These horizons can be plotted on a Gantt Chart to visualize these tasks and their progress.

This preliminary planning should encompass these:

Work breakdown structure

Resource breakdown structure

Risk breakdown structure

Organizational breakdown structure

Cost breakdown structure

Product breakdown structure

These should all be a top-level breakdown.

Plan For First Iteration

Now you and your project team are to start planning for the first wave or iteration in detail.

Start from the first horizon in the work breakdown structure and delve into a more detailed plan for the schedule, budget, and required resources. On the Gantt Chart, add a schedule for the tasks of the first wave, and assign tasks.

As you move along waves, planning for a wave should be done while the tasks of the previous waves are executed.

Create The Project Baseline

At this point, the project baselines have to be set up. Set up the estimated scope, budget, and schedule baselines to ensure that project can be executed with available resources and within the timeframe.

Once this is done, it is time to get the necessary sign-off from stakeholders to start the project execution.

Start The First Wave

Now that the stakeholders have signed off, the actual project work is to begin. Teams are to start executing their assigned tasks, while you monitor the performance and progress.

It is important to gather information as you go as this will assist in the detailed planning of the subsequent horizons and helps with risk planning.

Using project management software to gather this information will help automatically capture the information and provide real-time updates to the project team and stakeholders thus keeping everyone updated and in the loop.

While the horizon is being done, detailed planning for the next wave can begin and intensify at the end of the iteration completion.

Iterate Project To Closure

Using this method, complete all horizons of the work breakdown structure using iterations, and when all deliverables are done and the scope has gone through verification and validation, you are to perform the project closing processes.

Also read: Project integration management

rolling wave planning examples

Rolling Wave Planning Examples

The use of rolling wave planning to manage projects helps in eliminating uncertainty from the project life cycle while maintaining a framework that is simultaneously flexible and controlled.

With this technique, you as a project manager can respond to ambiguities in a structured way to ensure project success and avoid scope creep. This is especially helpful for development projects.

Development projects require creativity and iterations. This along with the uncertainty makes a lot of project managers struggle with development projects like software development.

For example, a company I worked with wanted to develop new software for our billing system. We managed and executed the project with the following steps using the rolling wave planning technique.

Step 1: The project reviewed the existing billing software. Identified the shortcomings of the system and what was working. Then, project tasks such as research, competitive analysis, and data analysis were delegated among project team members.

Step 2: The project was broken down. We started with identifying the initial requirements as detailed by key stakeholders. In this case, the organizational management. The initial risks were identified. From the breakdown, rough estimates of the budget, schedule, and required resources were outlined.

Step 3: Planning started for the first wave which entailed designing the user interface.

Step 4: The design of the software user interface started while planning for the user experience and software functionality, and subsequent migration from the old billing software.

Step 5: The interface was successfully designed. A review of the wave was done, and other waves were planned in more detail. Project cost and schedule estimates were then further evaluated for feasibility.

Step 6: Planning and design of subsequent waves and deliverables continued until the software was tested, and taken live for deployment to the end users.

Final Thoughts

Due to the uncertainty and tight schedules of a lot of projects in the modern workplace, the rolling wave planning technique can help you plan and manage and execute projects more efficiently.

It is important to use the right tools with this technique to get the most out of it.

To make the process easier, project management software should be employed to do the heavy lifting of tracking schedules, tasks, and updates while keeping the project team up to date.

David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)
David Usifo (PSM, MBCS, PMP®)

David Usifo is a certified Project Management professional, professional Scrum Master, and a BCS certified Business Analyst with a background in product development and database management.

He enjoys using his knowledge and skills to share with aspiring and experienced Project Managers and Business Analysts the core concept of value-creation through adaptive solutions.

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