6 June, 2024

What is Rolling Wave Planning?

In this video I answer the question, what is Rolling Wave Planning? And I also look at the rolling wave planning process.

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This is learning, so, sit back and enjoy

A Definition of Rolling Wave Planning

Rolling Wave Planning is an iterative planning approach where we plan near-term project activities in detail, and give less detail to our plans of work further in the future.

Then, as we move through the schedule, we progressively elaborate on the details of each chunk of work.

The Structure of Rolling Wave Planning

A typical structure might be to plan the next month or two in great detail, and the following months in outline. Then, successive periods beyond, say, 6 months, will be represented by no more detail than a strategy plan or roadmap.

So, for example, in Work Breakdown Structure terms, we might plan:

  • Near term in detail
  • Mid-term by identifying work packages
  • Long-term as workstreams or work package clusters

Your WBS will then evolve as you fill out the details.

The Rolling Wave Planning Process

The rolling wave planning process is simple:

  • We start with our outline strategy plan or roadmap
  • Next, we work with the team to determine the areas of f work that we will do in the near term
  • For the first wave, we put the detail on our plans for that first increment of work, and also identify what the second wave will be and sketch out the broad themes or work packages we’ll deliver and the key milestones we will work to
  • Teams work on the first wave activities and we manage this as with any project, keeping their work to budget and schedule, while monitoring the quality of their deliverables. We track performance through to the end of that increment.

We then plan the second wave in detail, and identify the work packages and milestones for the subsequent wave.

And so on…

Rolling Wave Planning and Agile

Let no one tell you otherwise: rolling wave planning is an adaptive approach to project delivery. As with other aspects of agile project management approaches, it allows us to adapt to changing circumstances and new knowledge. Yet it is very much a part of the predictive project management toolset.

And it is great for dealing with predictive project delivery in contexts of high uncertainty, changing requirements, or a lack of clarity that only time will be able to resolve.

Rolling wave planning puts the lie to any idea that there is a hard boundary between predictive and agile project management.

But why bother with the mid-term or long-term planning at all?

This is a question that some Agilists might ask.

Rolling wave planning allows us to identify the broad scope of the project. This gives team members the big picture of what we are asking them to do, so they can see their immediate work in its context. This makes for better decision-making, more buy-in, and greater motivation.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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