What Is Rolling Wave Planning?


Sometimes the whole picture isn’t clear when you’re planning a project. But with a traditional project management methodology, such as waterfall, you set everything up first and then you’re stuck with it.

But the waterfall methodology is only one way to manage a project. Other project managers prefer a more iterative process, like scrum. Others still prefer forms of agile software development where they have room to adjust their project plan. That type of agile project management is called rolling wave planning or wave planning.

Rolling wave planning might not be for every project, but it could be for yours. Wave planning, project management software and a skilled and experienced team might be just the combination to deliver project success for you.

What Is Rolling Wave Planning?

Rolling wave planning is a type of project schedule that focuses on iterative work and frequent updates to the project plan. It’s a project planning technique for projects that don’t offer all the data needed to create a plan or schedule up front.

That doesn’t mean the project starts without a plan. It begins as most projects do, with a work breakdown structure (WBS) to the tasks, work packages and deliverables within the project scope. The difference with rolling wave planning is that the WBS is filled only to the project manager’s current knowledge.

The project plan then evolves as more details become clear. This project planning technique is like putting the track in front of the train as you move forward. By doing this, work always moves forward in short sprints throughout the project phases, while project planning occurs in the background to offer guidance once those short-term tasks are done.

Though most often applied to agile software development or new product development, it can be used for other projects that might not move as swiftly.

Rolling Wave Planning Benefits

A rolling wave plan is very helpful when the project plan has a lot of uncertainty. When you need to manage risk, rolling wave planning is set up to let you pivot as needed if any of those risks become issues. This gives you room to address those issues and resolve them before they become problems.

Outside of risky projects, rolling wave planning lets you ensure you identify all key details for the project scope you’re about to execute. This gives team members a clear picture of the work items they need to do in the immediate future of the project schedule. That makes buy-in more likely, as well as accountability.

Of course, one of the most important benefits of using a rolling wave planning technique is that it gives you wiggle room in the project. With traditional project management methodologies, you’re often stuck with your plan. With rolling wave planning, the plan can change quickly.

In order to make changes, one must monitor the project progress. ProjectManager is a cloud-based project management software that tracks the project in real time allowing you to see issues and address them quickly. Our live dashboard is like an instant status report whenever you want one. Stay up-to-date on project progress and performance by trying ProjectManager for free.

Get a high-level view of your rolling wave plan with ProjectManager’s real-time dashboard Learn more

Which Industries Benefit From Using Rolling Wave Planning?

Rolling wave planning technique is suitable for projects where all the project planning data isn’t immediately available and when the project execution is risky. Generally, rolling wave planning is mostly used for software development.

But there are other projects and industries that are a good fit for rolling wave planning and its iterative type of project planning. For example, research and development (R&D) projects. These projects are not structured to finish with a knowable deliverable. They’re exploring and hoping to discover new products or services.

Similarly, high-tech projects lend themselves to rolling wave planning. Any project that is devoted to innovation is going to constantly pivot to take advantage of opportunities. They’re not on a linear path. They require the flexibility to respond as features change, but still provide the control needed to deliver any project successfully.

Rolling Wave Planning vs Agile Sprints

We’ve already mentioned agile sprints, which are periods in which you execute tasks. They’re also a highly iterative type of project planning. But are they synonymous with rolling wave plans?

Well, both are iterative ways to work. They both involve having daily standup meetings before working on the assigned tasks. So there are similarities between rolling wave planning and agile sprints.

But they are not interchangeable project management techniques. Rolling wave planning is a better fit when you’re working with ordered tasks on a tight project schedule. While it’s true that rolling wave planning is only planning in the near term, the tasks are sequential and the deadline is firm.

Sprints a way to work in an agile project environment, which is not so focused on task sequences or the critical path. Also, deadlines can be more flexible. Therefore, rolling wave planning and scrum agile sprints share some attributes, but they are different, and shouldn’t be applied haphazardly. Find the one that works best within the framework of your project plan.

Rolling Wave Planning Steps

Rolling wave planning is a great way to keep your project meeting its scope, schedule and budget requirements while staying creative. It is often difficult for project managers to keep those two ideas in their heads. Meeting requirements means having a structure, and creativity is notoriously loose.

But by learning how to do rolling wave planning, project managers can reduce uncertainties and keep a project planning framework that allows flexibility to work creatively. Project managers can track, schedule and update their plans by following these six rolling wave planning steps.

  • Step 1: The project manager starts the process by identifying risks and planning to reduce their impact if they show up in the project. The project manager will also talk about the project requirements with the team, when they need to be met and who will work on them. Next, roles and responsibilities are outlined for the team.
  • Step 2: Working with the team, develop a timeline, budget and what resources you need. The WBS will be helpful at this point as you define the tasks and deliverables in the project. The larger project is broken into smaller ones called horizons. This can be detailed on a Gantt chart.
  • Step 3: Plan the first iteration, often called a wave, which means adding details to the work you’ve already done. Tighten up the timeline, budget and necessary resources for the wave. When the team is working, the project manager should start to plan the next wave.
  • Step 4: Create a baseline for time, cost and scope to make sure your wave is meeting its deadline, budget and using the resources you allot for it.
  • Step 5: The first wave begins. Teams work on their tasks and the project manager monitors and tracks their progress and performance. The project manager will also work towards reducing uncertainties in the later stages of the project.
  • Step 6: Continue this process of iteration until you’ve reached the end of the project. When the project is closed, have a post mortem to discuss the things that did and didn’t work, so you can start the next project on better footing.

How ProjectManager Helps With Rolling Wave Planning

Running a project with rolling wave planning requires the flexibility of project planning software that lets you make and change plans, monitor progress and connect teams. ProjectManager is cloud-based, delivering the real-time data you need to view the live project and have the tools to change the plan quickly and easily.

Create In-Depth Project Plans on Gantt Charts

Project managers need to plan the project with a tool that can make changes without an investment of time and excess effort. ProjectManager’s online Gantt chart can drag and drop dates to new deadlines, which adjusts the entire schedule. You can also sets a baseline to calculate project variance and filter for the critical path. The Gantt can be shared with your team and stakeholders to keep everyone on the same page.

A screenshot of a gantt chart in ProjectManager

Work How You Want with Multiple Project Views

ProjectManager has multiple project views that allow everyone to work how they want to. For example, teams can use kanban tools to manage their backlog and plan how they’ll execute tasks. You can add files to tasks and comment on them, keeping teams collaborating even if you’re not physically working together. Managers can look over the visual workflow of the kanban, Then, they can allocate resources to their team to keep them working at capacity.

ProjectManager's kanban boards are ideal for rolling wave planning

Get Real-Time Data on Dashboards

It’s important to have a clear picture of your project in order to see issues and make changes in real time. The live dashboard is great for a high-level view, you can dig deeper with one-click reports. Generate reports on project variance, project status or even portfolio status, costs, workload, timesheets and more. You can filter reports to just see the information you’re interested in. Then, easily share them with stakeholders to keep them updated.

ProjectManager's reports are ideal for rolling wave planning

ProjectManager is award-winning software that organizes your work and creates efficiencies that help you boost productivity. Join the tens of thousands of teams at organizations as diverse as Siemens, Nestle and Illinois University who are already using our tool to deliver success. Try ProjectManager today for free!