Projects can be diverse. Similarly, the techniques and methodologies that project managers use can differ.

While some project managers prefer traditional project management styles like Waterfall, others may use an iterative process like Scrum.

For managers who prefer adjusting their project plan as work progresses, Agile project management is a great option.

When managers focus on planning and execution in shorter-term time waves, it is known as rolling wave planning or wave planning.

What is rolling wave planning?

Rolling wave planning is a strategic project management technique where teams work within smaller waves or time periods to accommodate expected project changes.

Teams start with the available information and define the work deliverables, tasks, and budgets per the project scope. They work iteratively and set goals and project milestones as they move forward or obtain more clarity. 

Rolling wave planning in Agile lets teams focus on short-term objectives with the bigger picture in mind. The project keeps moving ahead in smaller waves while planning for the next wave to happen in the background.

Rolling wave planning vs. Agile methodologies

Agile sprints and rolling wave planning have lots in common. Both are iterative ways to approach a project that have daily team stand-ups before tasks are assigned. 

Despite their similarities, these project management techniques cannot be used interchangeably. The rolling wave planning technique works best when:

  • The project has a tight delivery schedule
  • Teams need to focus on short-term planning instead of longer-range goals
  • The project milestones, budgets, timelines are not 100% clear
  • Process-oriented or sequential tasks need to be completed within a firm deadline

Here are a few times when the Agile project environment is more suitable:

  • When sprints need to be completed within their scheduled deadlines
  • When projects have a flexible timeline and clear milestones, budgets, and goals
  • In projects where priority goals must be addressed first, irrespective of their sequence or order

While Scrum sprints and rolling wave planning carry similar attributes, they are different. It is best not to apply any of these techniques arbitrarily. Pick the one that fits your project plan framework best.

Benefits of rolling wave planning

Managing projects using rolling wave planning can offer some significant benefits. Here are a few of them:

  • Provides a clear picture of team deliverables per the project schedule
  • Allows for critical project attributes and data to be captured before work is started
  • Keeps team members well-informed about their short-term project milestones
  • Increases team accountability and stakeholder buy-in
  • Offers flexibility to course-correct based on identified risks
  • Accelerates achievement of long-term goals

By learning the art of rolling wave planning, project managers can significantly reduce project uncertainties. It allows project planning to be highly flexible while channeling creativity in every step.

When to use rolling wave planning in project management

Wave planning is great for certain kinds of projects. But how do you decide if this is right for your project? Rolling wave planning can be helpful in the following situations:

Uncertain project goals

The rolling wave plan works well for projects with uncertain goals or timelines. Risk management in a project becomes easy with rolling wave planning. It allows you to pivot if an issue becomes a potential threat. 

With rolling wave planning, you can quickly address those issues before they derail the project.

Projects where planning data is unavailable

Rolling wave project planning works best for projects where the project planning data is not readily available, and execution becomes a challenge. 

For example, software development projects are ideal for the deployment of rolling wave planning.

Research and development projects

However, other industries and projects can also benefit from the iterative project planning of the rolling wave technique. 

For example, most intricate R&D projects are not designed to culminate with comprehensible deliverables. Instead, these projects are structured to explore and discover new services or products.

Innovative projects

Any project involving high-level innovation should utilize rolling wave planning. These project teams must be ready to pivot to seize any hidden opportunities. 

Innovative projects don't always tread the linear path and require greater flexibility to respond to sudden changes. However, the flexibility doesn't compromise the control needed to deliver a project successfully.

How to Use Rolling Wave Planning in Project Management 2
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

Rolling wave planning steps

Rolling wave planning allows you to stay creative while keeping the project within its schedule, scope, and budget. At times, project managers may find it difficult to maintain a balance between being creative and sticking to a project structure.

Creativity is free-flowing, while fulfilling requirements means having a defined structure for the project. Rolling wave planning helps project managers get the best of both worlds. Start your rolling wave planning with these basic steps:

Step 1: Identify risks

Start by identifying project risks and ways to mitigate their impact.

Have a team discussion on project requirements, deliverables, and timelines. After this meeting, assign specific roles, responsibilities, and tasks to the team members.

Step 2: Outline project attributes

The project team works on a timeline and budget and finalizes the resources required to deliver the project. Using a work breakdown structure (or WBS) is a good option here.

Teams use a WBS to define the project tasks and deliverables and break down the entire project into smaller, actionable chunks of tasks called horizons. These horizons are plotted on a Gantt chart to visualize the project tasks and progress.

Step 3: Plan the waves

The first iteration or wave needs to be thoroughly planned. Details are added to the work that has already been completed in the previous wave. Teams streamline the budget, timeline, and required resources for the wave. Planning for the upcoming wave starts even as work on the previous one continues.

Step 4: Set up project baseline

An estimated baseline is created for the project scope, costs, and timeline. This ensures that the project resources and time are utilized in the best possible manner.

Step 5: Begin the first wave

Teams start working on their assigned tasks while the project manager closely monitors their performance and project progress. The focus is on reducing the uncertainties in the next stages of the project.

Step 6: Continue the waves until goals are achieved

The iterations or waves continue until the project's goals are achieved. After the project has been delivered, teams conduct an in-depth analysis of what worked and what didn't. This review prepares them for upcoming projects.

Rolling wave planning examples

Rolling wave planning eliminates uncertainty while establishing a flexible yet controlled framework. 

It equips project managers to approach every project step carefully and respond to ambiguity in a sophisticated and structured manner. It's a perfect fit for any development project, such as software development.

Here’s a rolling wave example: A pharmaceutical company wants to develop a new drug for cancer care. It starts a research and development project and uses rolling wave planning to manage it.

  • Step 1: The team identifies treatments that have not worked and avoids using them in their project. They meet to decide who will be assigned competition analysis, research, data analysis, and other tasks.
  • Step 2: The entire project is broken down into smaller areas — research, development, review, and analysis. Approximate project budget, timeline, and resources requirements are outlined.
  • Step 3: Planning starts for the first wave, the research and review phase.
  • Step 4: The number of cancer treatments to be discovered is decided, along with the estimated timeline and cost for the project.
  • Step 5: Research starts. Different treatment options are reviewed in the first wave, and teams begin work on their assigned tasks.
  • Step 6: The research and development project continues until the predefined goals are achieved. The team ends the project with a review of the final results and gain insights into the upcoming projects.

How Wrike can help deliver project success through rolling wave planning

Rolling wave planning encourages project managers to be meticulous. Establishing key hypotheses and milestones is important to help stakeholders understand why you use the rolling wave method and what they should expect as the project progresses.

Use robust project management software like Wrike to manage a project with rolling wave planning. Wrike lets you change plans, track project progress, and collaborate in real-time with your teams. 

Wrike's cloud-based interface lets you view live projects while giving you the right tools to course-correct easily and quickly.

Start a free Wrike trial now and see how it makes rolling wave planning pmp easier by doing all the heavy lifting for you. Quit manually tracking updates, tasks, and schedules, change project priorities as you need, and empower your teams to achieve their goals.