Rolling Wave Planning – PMP Concept, Examples

Editorial Team

Rolling Wave Planning PMP

What is Rolling Wave Planning

Rolling wave planning is a process that involves the planning of a specific project in waves as the project takes place which enhances the clarity of the details where this technique requires iterative planning to be conducted. Rolling wave planning is a project management technique that consists of more detailed planning for short-term items rather than longer-term items. The philosophy behind this iterative planning strategy is that what needs to be designed is thoroughly planned in the short-term, while the high-level and comprehensive long-term work is outlined until it is in the next iteration.

Rolling wave planning is often utilized when there exists inadequacy in project information with regards to the features and requirements as well as when there is an extremely tight timeline that needs to be adhered to. It is also deemed as an approach that provides iterative plans for a project as it unfolds, where it is seen as similar to the techniques implemented in Scrum (development) as well as other forms of agile software development.

Rolling wave planning is considered ideal for projects that have not well defined path to the finishing line as this project might be prone to alteration. It is also deemed as strategic planning which is conducted every week or every two weeks according to the phase of the project and the pace where it changes. The rolling wave planning essentially directs the project management professionals (PMP) to make planning until the implementation of the plan is visible and allow the next steps to be scheduled while working directly to the previous phase.

Rolling Wave Planning in Project Management

Rolling wave planning in project management is a process that requires progressive elaboration to continually adding the details to the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Near-term deliverables are decomposed into individual components (work packages) at the beginning of the project and described at the greatest level of detail. It involves the process of dividing the WBS into a few phases where the Project Management Professional (PMP) will investigate the WBS at the end of each stage and extends it to provide more detail for the latest phase. Rolling wave planning in project management takes place in four steps which include creating the WBS, divide the project into phases, provide the realistic level of detail for every phase, and once the considered phase was completed, the process will return to the first step to manage the next phase.

The first step which is creating the WBS includes splitting each project into a standalone work item. Throughout the project life cycle, the work items are monitored where the signs of progress are recorded and reported. Next, the second step is dividing the project into phases where the phases are more simply the points in which an important stage for the project, in general, takes place. The third step is providing a realistic level of detail for each phase. The work breakdown structure will contain fewer details regarding the successive phases, but these will be reviewed and completed when the phases begin to be close in time. Finally, the fourth stage is once the considered phase was completed, the process will return to the first step to manage the next phase. In essence, rolling wave planning in project management depicts that it is crucial to plan at the starting point of each project before proceeding with the implementation of the project.

More precisely described are the deliverables and timetable events that will take place over many reporting periods in the future. For instance, in the WBS, Phases 1-2 could be broken down completely. Only at the level of subprojects could Phases 3-6 be illustrated. Then, when phase 1 preparation activities are continuing, the comprehensive planning for phase 3 will begin. Planning for phase 4 will start as phase 2 is set in motion, and so forth. In this way, rolling wave planning helps work operations to step forward on current and near-term deliverables while potential work packages are still being prepared.

Rolling wave planning in project management is especially suitable for projects where one phase of work is likely to vary depending on the outcomes of the preceding phase, such as innovation projects or projects involving prototypes. This method of approach to project management is especially useful when the availability of information required for the thorough preparation of potential work packages is necessary for the effective implementation of previous project phases. This technique assists in reducing the time of completion by making it possible to begin productive activities without waiting to decide every aspect of the project work in advance as well as eliminating the disruption for subsequent planning in the middle of a project since planning is done constantly. Project management that is carried out using rolling wave planning must have a well-defined project scope or otherwise, scope creep might occur as planning is enumerated.

Rolling Wave Planning vs Agile

Rolling wave planning is a common approach implemented by both traditional and agile project management. It is an iterative planning technique that allows the planning process of the work that is due in the near term to be planned in detail, whereas the work due in the future to be planned at a higher level. Rolling wave planning in traditional project management is usually implemented when there are inadequate details of the project requirements. On the other hand, an agile project makes sure that the planning process is conducted in waves as the clarity of the project requirements enhanced which unfolds the complexity of the project. 

Agile (specifically Scrum) is often implemented for the daily priorities where the “Stories” are selected from a backlog for the project management professionals to focus on one Sprint where this commonly takes place for two weeks. However, in the context of hardware development, rolling wave planning is deemed more ideal to be used as it recognizes and captures the detailed work that has to be accomplished in the upcoming term. The tasks required in hardware projects must be completed in a specific order, thus this requires the planning’s development and management to demonstrate task and project dependencies which highlight the suitability to implement rolling wave planning for such projects.

Similar to Agile or specifically Scrum, rolling wave planning also uses the Standup or Huddles in ensuring the right daily priorities as well as to undercover any blockages. Standup meetings (huddles) is a tactical activity that makes sure the team stays focused every day on the right priorities. Standup may occur on a daily basis or every few days where it is influenced by the phase of the project as well as the pace where things change.

Rolling Wave Planning Examples

The rolling wave planning approach is particularly beneficial to be used when conducting a project with a high level of uncertainty which involves the process of breaking down the work structure into time intervals. An instance of rolling wave planning template is when a project is expected to be completed in eight months, however, the project is only clear for the first three months. Thus, in this situation, the project is planned for the first three months. When the clarity is enhanced as the project progresses, the following months can be planned by the project manager.

The rolling wave technique uses progressive processing, where the processing of the work packages is in a more detailed manner as the project unfolds. However, it is important to take into account that rolling wave planning does not necessarily exempt the project manager to create a list of milestones and assumptions for the project. It is crucial to have the milestones and the key hypotheses as they assist the stakeholders to understand why they are using the rolling wave method and what to expect while the project progresses.

The Benefits of Rolling Wave Planning

There are various benefits of the rolling wave planning approach especially for project management where it can be seen through the availability of the details required in planning the upcoming work packages in accordance with the effective completion of the past phases of the project. The rolling wave planning is conducted in four steps where it put front the benefits of this approach for the project management professionals. Some of the benefits of rolling wave planning are as followed:

  • Ensuring the identification of the critical details in the upcoming work
  • Ensuring the team members are well informed about the near-term
  • Creating buy-in and accountability
  • Allows the team to course-correct as new information arrives and new risks are identified
  • Makes the long-term plan more manageable
  • Ensuring the team to stay focused on the right priorities every day
  • Focuses the team on the short-term goals, course-correcting as needed
  • Reduce turnaround time by allowing the start of productive activities without waiting for every detail of the work to be determined in advance
  • Eliminating downtime for additional planning in the middle of a project
  • Encourages planning and adaptability
  • Excellent for research and development projects, high technology, and inventions
  • Excellent for projects with variable capacity