rolling wave planning

Project managers can use rolling wave planning to develop broad plans for an ambiguous future while still producing a thorough short-term project management planning.

A project is divided into waves using the rolling wave planning method, with the close-by work being planned in great detail and the far-off work being defined at a high level. As the project progresses, the job scope becomes clearer, and planning gets better.

What Is Rolling Wave Planning?

A project planning method called rolling wave planning involves planning the work that has to be done right now in great detail while planning the work that needs to be done in the future at a higher level.

It is a type of progressive elaboration that entails ongoing development, updating the project plans as precise and correct information becomes available, and supporting the project management team in defining the job.

Future works are outlined using rolling wave planning and planning packages. These planning documents are then transformed into thorough work packages.

Rolling Wave Planning Benefits

  1. Better Planning for Unpredictable Future: Even when information is available at the beginning of a project, you cannot predict the future, so rolling wave planning is helpful. For longer projects, this renders long-term planning ineffective. Additionally, it makes little sense to set plans for upcoming tasks that are uncertain or for potential unforeseen contingencies.
  2. Saves Time: A “start now and figure the rest out later” approach has a shorter work duration that helps increase the granularity of the work breakdown structure. It improves the quality of the outcome. By beginning the project early and without waiting for all the project details, the rolling wave planning technique helps save time.
  3. No Delay in Project: Even though future goals may be uncertain, risk management helps avoid a threat from becoming an issue, so it takes extra effort at an earlier project stage. However, it avoids getting projects delayed.
  4. Improved Efficiency: It provides project managers buffer time to minimize project risks or mistakes while focusing on the critical paths and milestones
  5. Adaptability for Constant Changes in Scope: When planning and executing at a predetermined timed loop, rolling wave planning operates iteratively. It enables managers and staff to concentrate on immediate objectives while making adjustments towards long-term objectives. When fresh information becomes available or any new risks are discovered, it aids the project team in changing their direction.
  6. Sustains the Project Life: If a plan is done once, the project failure rate will be high, but frequent planning helps sustain the project. The rolling wave planning ensures team members know what is expected of them and that they understand their roles and responsibilities in the bigger picture.
  7. Effective Resource Allocation: Resources are the main cause of project conflicts. The rolling wave planning technique aids project managers in effective resource allocation and helps avoid conflicts.
  8. Monitors Progress: This strategy helps keep project stakeholders up-to-date with the project progress and increases team accountability.

What Industries Can Use Rolling Wave Planning?

Software Development 

Most software development projects use rolling wave planning where all the requirements are not clear up front, the scope of work changes frequently, and it involves a lot of uncertainties.

Research and Development Projects (R&D) 

For R&D projects, the project deliverables may be unknown at the early stages. So they need rolling wave planning to plan for immediate work in detail and leave the rest for the later stages when more details are available.

High-Tech Projects

These are innovative projects such as the New Product Development (NPD) that capitalize on the rolling wave planning strategy to take advantage of emerging opportunities during a project constantly.

Rolling Wave Planning Vs. Agile Sprints

Agile springs and rolling wave planning are both iterative methods, which has many commonalities. Both procedures produce, test, and update a final product till the client is pleased.

Although the two methods are similar, there are numerous differences that prevent you from using one over the other. Some differences are


Rolling Wave Planning Steps

The following steps are required for rolling wave planning:

Step1: Make Preparations For the Rolling Wave

The specifics, risks, and task dependencies are all identified during this crucial step.

An assessment of the project needs is the first step in this process.

Review the technological limitations, then specify the needs and the deadline.

Consider the approval processes, potential problems, hazards, and the duties and obligations of each team member as you plan. These team members need to be aware of the requirements, obligations, and accountability.

You will have your project life cycle at the conclusion of this stage.

Step 2: Divide the Project into Phases

Even when all the details are not yet known, sectioning the project into phases aids in setting goals and outlining the project deliverables.

Include all pertinent information in the plan since, as additional information becomes available, the project’s timeframe advances.

Step 3: Plan the First Wave

Collect all details on work included in the first wave, including resources, budget, time frame, etc. Set the schedule and assign tasks to team members.

You can identify work for the higher horizon without making any rigid decisions. Decide the schedules for the commencement of the next wave.

Step 4: Create Baselines 

Using information from the first wave, conduct a risk analysis before proceeding with the project. Afterward, you can develop the project baselines that include cost baseline, schedule baseline, and scope baseline.

Step 5: Start on the First Wave

Now, execute the first wave. Follow the plan, execute the plan, complete the deliverable and get approval from the stakeholders, if required. 

Step 6: Iterate the Project to a Close

Repeat the process until the project is completed and the client accepts the deliverable. After closing the project, conduct a retrospective analysis to identify areas where you could have done better.

When Should You Use Rolling Wave Planning?

You can use rolling wave planning when:

  1. Detailed planning of an entire project cannot be done in a short time due to the unavailability of information.
  2. There is no clarity on project deliverables.
  3. The project involves high-level innovation.
  4. You get a research and development project.
  5. The project is multi-year duration.

Rolling Wave Planning Example

A customer needs a project to be completed in four years.

A preliminary estimate is made for the final three stages, but detailed planning is done at the beginning for the first three months (development, testing, and production deployment).

Planning is done in-depth during the second phase (the development phase).

Phase three (testing) is currently under planning in detail, while phase four (the scheduled activities) is under planning at a high level.

Phase four planning, often known as the production deployment phase, starts as phase three is implemented. 


If a project satisfies the requirements for rolling wave planning, go for it, but be aware that this strategy needs knowledgeable team members to effectively manage the task. Rolling wave planning, which is helpful for projects with a longer lifetime, frequent changes, or uncertainties, can be seen as a bridge between traditional and agile methodologies.