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Rolling Wave Planning and Progressive Elaboration

February 11th, 2008 · 1,314 Comments

is the process of planning for a project in waves as the project becomes clearer and unfolds. It is important in such projects to at least highlight in the initial plan the key milestones for the project.

 Rolling Wave Planning

Rolling Wave Planning acknowledges the fact that we can see more clearly what is in close proximity, but looking further ahead our vision becomes less clear. Rolling Wave Planning is a multi-step, intermittent process – like waves – because we cannot provide the details very far out in our planning. Depending upon the project – its length and complexity – we may be able to plan as much as a few weeks or even a few months in advance with a fair amount of clarity. This involves creating a detailed, well-defined Work Breakdown Structure for that period of clarity, but just highlighting the milestone for the rest of the project.


Progressive Elaboration

is what occurs in this rolling wave planning process. Progressive Elaboration means that over time we elaborate the work packages in greater detail. Progressive Elaboration refers to the fact that as the weeks and months pass we have planned to provide that missing, more elaborated detail for the work packages as they now appear on the horizon.


"Feasibility Study" Projects

Rolling Wave Planning and Progressive Elaboration are similar concepts. They acknowledge the fact that in many projects, what must be done is unknown, but based upon past experience the project will unfold itself as it progresses. Thus, it is a plan to do more planning when that plan is possible, with the confidence that it will be. We will see more clearly what is ahead of us as we learn from the work that we do in earlier phases.


One question that often arises in project planning, in this area, is whether to actually create separate projects that will in the end produce a product that elaborates what is to be done on another project and taken as a whole these projects essentially are one larger project. Breaking them into separate projects enables budgets to be able to be allocated and provides decision points as to whether to even move on to the next project, or to stop and perhaps even go a different way.

This is sometimes what is done with "Feasibility Study" Projects. Often times an organization may have some good ideals that they would like to pursue, but before they make the total commitment they want to study the Feasibility of what it might take to do the project, or also what impact the project might have. This in essence is a bit of a different approach to progressive elaboration or rolling wave planning.


John Reiling, PMP
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Tags: Project Management Process