Rolling wave planning is closely aligned with the phrase “Progressive elaboration”. You are likely to find both terms when taking your project management professional (PMP) Exam.
Just take our surfing dude, left as an example. Sure he has incredible skills to ride the wave, and a plan of how he intends to execute his surfing experience, but as each wave unfurls, he ducks and dives to ride each wave as it forms…so I ask you….
It’s quite simple and stems from the almost impossible situation of taking a complex project, and one where all the information is still being gathered, and planning it in detail from the very start.
You will have at least three fundamental problems in trying to do this:
So, what is a solution to the above problems?
Well, the answer is in point number three above, if you can’t know all the information at the beginning – then don’t even try!
What do you know at the very beginning? Probably just a high-level view of how the project will be split into sections, Stages, or phases.
An analogy can be helpful here.
My business partner Nick lives in South Carolina, yet often must fly out to San Francisco. That is an East Coast and West Coast trip.
On this one occasion (true story), his eldest son accompanied him, so he decided to drive and make it an interesting trip. Nick knew the high-level way points across several states, and the major towns and cities that he would travel through or bypass.
He was setting himself a 10-day journey sure that they could both take in some sightseeing a long way.
This was Nicks High-level Project Plan.
As you can imagine as each day of the trip passed by, they may decide to stay longer in some locations and miss others so they could reach San Francisco by the 10th day.
See it this way if you will, for each day or two of the journey Nick would plan the details for the next couple of days Complete with journey times, destinations, and time spent at each location.
These were Nicks Stage Plans.
At each stage as the stage plan was created, Nick would need to update the “Project Plan” to chart out the remaining journey – yet still reach San Francisco by the 10th day.
There you have it, “rolling wave planning” or “progressive elaboration” if you will.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that projects have all the same characteristics as Nick’s road trip – they just take a little longer, cost a lot more, and are usually a lot more complex.
Let’s check out how you would apply rolling wave planning to your PMP project.
The term “Progressive elaboration”, simply means that you do not know all the characteristics about a product when you begin the project. Instead, they may be revisited often and refined. As an example, you may gather some of the requirements, perform preliminary design, take the results to the stakeholders for feedback, and then return together with more requirements.
The characteristics of the product emerge over time, Or “progressively”
Check out the diagram below before I continue…
In Part 2 of this article, I will take you through the above diagram in some detail (don’t worry, I will repeat the above diagram…)