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Basics of Rolling Wave Planning

written by: Rupen Sharma, PMP • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 4/3/2013

The requirements were vague: I couldn’t possibly plan for the entire project. However, at least some degree of planning was required to get the project started. So, I used the Rolling Wave Planning technique to plan as far as the requirements were clear, and you can learn this, too.

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    Fundamentals

    Rolling Wave Planning is a technique that enables you to plan for a project as it unfolds. This technique, then, requires you to plan iteratively. The planning technique is very similar to those used in SCRUM or other Agile Methodologies. Essentially, when you use Rolling Wave Planning, plan until you have visibility, implement, and then re-plan.

    Wave 

    For example, suppose you expect to complete the project in eight months, but only have clarity for the first three months: You would plan only for those three months. As the project progresses and you gain more clarity, you would then plan for the remaining months. The Rolling Wave Planning technique uses progressive elaboration, which is the act of elaborating the work packages in greater detail as the project unfolds.

    This method for planning does not exempt you from creating a list of milestones and assumptions for the entire project. As a matter of fact, it is necessary to provide key milestones and assumptions as they will help stakeholders see why you are using Rolling Wave Planning and what to expect as the project progresses.

    PMP Exam: Rolling Wave Planning and Progressive Elaboration are concepts that are often quizzed in the PMP exam.

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    Usage in Project Management

    Rolling Wave Planning is used when you just don’t have enough clarity to plan in detail the entire project. This lack of clarity could come from various factors, such as emerging requirements. Rolling Wave Planning is particularly useful in projects with high uncertainty. Therefore, you must use the Risk Management best practices.

    For example, in product development it is common practice to prototype before going into the actual product development. Therefore, in such an environment you would use Rolling Wave Planning to plan the prototype and then make a decision to proceed to implementation. Post the Prototype phase, you would plan once again.

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    Benefits of Rolling Wave Planning

    This iterative approach to planning is commonly found in SCRUM and other Agile Project Management Methodologies. Similar to Agile, Rolling Wave Planning:

    • Encourages adaptability
    • Encourages planning
    • Is great for R&D, High-Tech, Invention projects
    • Is good for projects with changing scope

    Tip: If you are considering Rolling Wave Planning, you might want to also read about Lean Thinking.