When you’re packing your bags to go on vacation, you need to think in terms of the short- and long-term. First, there’s packing enough socks for two weeks away from home, plus a nice outfit for that fancy restaurant in the middle of your trip — then there’s making sure you’ve got comfy clothes to wear for the flight over.
Being a project manager is a bit like this — thinking about the long-term stuff, as well as the daily details. But, instead of two weeks, you need to plan for weeks ahead, months — or even years.
The savvy vacationer might use a checklist to help them plan ahead. The savvy project manager uses something called a rolling wave plan (RWP). Let’s take a closer look at what this technique is…
What is rolling wave planning?
Rolling wave planning is an activity that helps managers focus on short-term goals and making adjustments with an eye on the bigger picture. It’s an iterative style of working, with planning and execution happening in defined, timed loops. The beginning of each loop occurs every week or two (depending on how fast things are moving), with daily standups (or ‘huddles’) each morning to assign tasks and make sure everyone knows what they’ll be working on for the day.
It’s particularly useful in technical projects — for example, new product development (NPD), where team members juggle various complex challenges, decisions, tasks, and information. Product developers also tend to work in a fast-paced environment, with demanding customers and unreliable suppliers impacting every decision. In this environment, rolling wave planning helps provide a sense of structure that accommodates change.
Rolling wave planning vs. sprints: what’s the difference?
During Scrum sessions, team members pull stories (tasks) from the backlog (task list). The team then focuses on this task for a couple of weeks — this is what’s known as a sprint. It’s commonly used in software development (though other industries have followed suit since it’s a really useful, efficient way to work).
When the team is working on a project where tasks need to be completed in a specific order — such as during hardware development — then rolling wave planning may be more appropriate for identifying and planning detailed near-term tasks and their dependencies.
Like with Scrum, rolling wave planning involves daily standups to make sure everyone has the right daily priorities and address any bottlenecks or roadblocks that may get in the way of work.
The similarities: Both are an iterative way of working with daily standups.
The differences: Rolling wave planning is better for managing ordered tasks set under tight deadlines. It focuses on the short-term. Agile sprints are less order-focused and turnaround times can be slower and planned further in advance.
What are the benefits of rolling wave planning?
The best project managers are flexible and have a process in place that provides a structure for when challenges pile up and allows for change. This helps ensure consistency, adaptability, and control — and the rolling wave process provides just that.
Its benefits include:
- Making sure you can see all the critical tasks, milestones, and dependencies in your project
- Ensuring the team knows what’s expected of them on a daily basis — and that they understand how their tasks fit into the bigger picture
- Helping managers change course as new information comes in and new risks appear
- Helping to keep the team heading in the right direction, thanks to daily adjustments
- And, it’s helpful for keeping managers and stakeholders up-to-date with team progress.
Top tip: Rolling wave is better suited to development rather than deployment. The latter tends to be more linear in terms of direction, whereas development works in a naturally looping pattern, with teams planning and revising iteratively until the project ends.
Rolling wave planning: a step-by-step guide
Rolling wave planning is a strategic 6-step process that involves a mix of top-down and bottom-up planning. Here’s how to do it.
Step 1: Prepare for the rolling wave
The project manager takes charge in planning. Part of this includes recognizing risks and uncertainty and taking steps to reduce both.
- Evaluate the product requirements with the rest of the team. If it lacks clarity and focus, then requirements capture should be your first step.
- Next, consider technical constraints and work out which requirements need to be met and by when. If you’re working on a new product design, consider the principles and philosophies of the organization.
- Next comes strategy planning, including reviewing approval cycles, roles and responsibilities, risks and issues, escalation, and so on. By the end of this stage, you should have an outline of the project lifecycle.
Step 2: Top-down planning (and the work breakdown structure)
First, begin with a top-down bare-bones perspective. Work with the team to set out estimates for time, budget, and resources. Remember to keep things top-level: Going into too much detail at this point will be a waste of time because the details are more likely to change. Here are some of the planning techniques you might use at this stage:
- A work breakdown structure (WBS)
- An organizational breakdown structure (OBS)
- A product breakdown structure (PBS)
- A cost breakdown structure (CBS)
- A risk breakdown structure (RBS)
The work breakdown structure is the one that’ll play a starring role. During this stage, avoid going below your top-level: Think broad strokes.
Next, start planning your ‘horizons’ (these are time chunks, or rolls of the wave). Split the project up and note down how many horizons your project will have, as well as how long each one will take. If you’re using project management software, you can use a Gantt chart and utilize real-time notifications to stay on track.
Step three: Start planning your first iteration (or wave)
It’s time to delve into the details. Start by taking a closer look at your first horizon (or iteration/wave), including budgets, resources, and timeframes. Add schedules and assign tasks in your Gantt chart.
- Keep an eye on assumptions and restrictions as more information becomes available. Start identifying work that might take place in later horizons (but remember to keep it flexible).
- Set out deployment dates so the project team knows how and when to hand over the product.
- Define dates for the next iteration/horizon stage. The replanning work is updated for each roll of the wave.
Step four: Work out your baseline
You have your detailed first wave planned, plus not fully defined other work. First, run a risk analysis before working out your time, cost, and scope baselines for the first wave. Once you have this, you can start getting sign-off from managers, stakeholders, and sponsors.
Step five: Set off on the first wave
Once you’re inside your first horizon/wave/iteration, things are relatively straightforward. You have your tasks all set out in your Gantt chart, and you know where you’re headed. Capture information as you go (this will come in handy for planning future horizons) and continue reducing uncertainties as you go. Again, project management software can be a big help here: It captures information automatically and keeps everyone in the loop with real-time updates, allowing the PM to be a little more hands-off.
Step six: Iterate your way toward project close
Continue through each horizon, repeating the process as you go until you reach the end of your project and hand it over to deployment. Close it with a project post mortem and record your learnings for the next one.
Deployment is about releasing something into a new environment. Development is creative and iterative. Many project managers are au fait with the first but struggle with the unique challenges of the latter — namely, uncertainty. This is where rolling wave planning is incredibly helpful: It’s all about eliminating uncertainty while providing a framework that allows both control and flexibility. It helps managers respond to ambiguity and approach things slowly, in a more sophisticated manner. For this reason, it’s perfect for development.
To really get the most out of rolling wave planning, it’s important managers use the right tools for the job. Project management software makes the whole process that little bit easier: instead of manually tracking tasks, schedules, and updates, the PM can let the software do the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, team members can stay up to date with fast-moving schedules and changing priorities without missing a beat.