What is rolling wave planning and why is it important in project management?


Rolling waves. Like being adrift on the open ocean. Yeah, that is not what this is about, well, not exactly.

A faction in the project management world espouses eliminating planning or at least shortening it significantly. Depending upon the application or industry, this dogmatic approach, with no detailed planning, are a road to failure via cost and schedule overruns. We blame the planning outcome when we do not plan or manage inappropriately.

On the other hand, there are approaches to planning that delude us and are a waste of time. From experience, many failures are due to poor and haphazard planning and errant management intercession.

The first principle is that you not fool yourself, and you are not the easiest person to fool.
~ Richard Feynman


Those familiar with Muda and the seven wastes might recognize taking time to create a detailed schedule for a two-year project. It represents overproduction. It is a form of waste. As a demonstration, what precisely will you be doing on October 12th, 2022?

Of course, you cannot effectively predict that far into the future to any significant level of detail. Projects are no different. Planning is necessary, but there are limits to the benefits. More planning does not equate to better circumstances.

Situation Dependent

The things we know are not always valid or are only applicable under specific conditions.

From experience, we do not always understand these conditions. The rolling wave approach to planning helps us mitigate the risk in planning based on these things that may not be true. In general, the things we know at one point in a project may change for several reasons.

For example, from experience, we learn something that will significantly alter the things we know, if not outright change. Learning is part of planning; executing the plan is how our team understands (learn). There are numerous approaches to project planning.

Knowing more than one approach allows us to optimize the planning approach to the circumstances. It is part of our symbolic backpack full of a collection of tools and principles from which we can choose.

For example, in product development, there is often a period in the beginning we call the fuzzy front end. We are unsure of the scope to any degree of certainty, the strategy, or perhaps the technology for achieving. In these instances, we may use choose rolling wave planning until we have sufficient information to allow for a more structured approach.

The Plan

There is little to no intelligible argument against planning as essential for business, especially project management. The problem is when we believe the plan is a fixed description of the course of events and often the time required. This problem is exacerbated when we extend the time a year or more into the future. It is not, or not necessarily.

Planning helps us determine and refine what is essential and the likely course of action to take to ensure success. We should expect that our plan is not a permanent or fixed definition of how the project events will transpire.

"In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

One might believe that if the plan is not a fixed representation of the project execution, why bother planning? Planning, ideally, allows the exploration of multiple and alternative approaches (strategies and tactics). In addition, the plan should be able to be altered as we learn.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." ~Benjamin Franklin

You might have heard some say that planning is not an important activity. It is essential, but poor or errant planning produces poor results. The more our team members are distributed or connected to different departments, the more important planning is.

Planning in these instances had poor results, so we should not plan. However, not doing a thing well does not necessarily mean we should stop doing something. Perhaps we should learn why we plan so poorly (learning) and apply that, using a continuous improvement approach. We do not believe in absolutes regarding product development and project management.

"Give me six-hour to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." ~unknown

From experience, a significant failure mode is attempting to make a detailed schedule from the project's outset. We are not discussing creating a milestone of the project but attempting to detail plan six months, nine months, or even a year into the future. If you do this and get poor results, do not blame planning.

If you are planning poorly, the results of that planning will be poor. Agile approaches recognize this inability to plan for this future date with a process that distinguishes between long-term (product backlog) and the essential and immediate (sprint backlog).

Rolling Wave Applied

The rolling wave approach does not presume we know enough to plan months or years into the future. Instead, we prepare for the immediate, and as we learn, we update the project plan. It is an incremental and iterative approach that existed before agile. When we do not know the detailed level of tasks and durations required to achieve the project objective, we can choose to that better meets these constraints.

"Have a bias toward action – let's see something happen now. You can Break that big plan into small steps and the first steps right away." ~Indira Gandhi

In rolling wave planning, we consider the immediate project objectives and the tasks required. We learn and create as we progress.

Effective planning

Effective project planning requires gathering various team members and building the strategy and tactics to achieve the project objectives. Successful planning also requires time, talent, and interaction of our team.

Planning requires focus.

There are times when we can detail plan the project. Perhaps the organization is in a particular industry working with the same or similar technology. In these cases, the organization may have a template from which the project plan is derived. However, even in these circumstances, the beginning of the project, evoking the scope and determining the specific approach to meeting the expectations may be too varied, requiring an adaptive learning plan. This is best suited for a rolling wave approach.

In general, we are not a fan of dogmatic approaches. For some projects, you can get by without estimating or planning to any degree of rigor. The process can similarly be minimal when little is at risk (de minimis). To say never prepare, or no estimates, and make that a ubiquitous statement demonstrates a remedial knowledge or project management and planning.