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Definition of Rolling wave planning

What is rolling wave planning

Rolling wave planning is a dynamic approach to project management, in which the plan constantly evolves and adapts as the project progresses. It works in cycles, or “waves,”  in which teams define and execute tasks for a short time (a week, month, or quarter). Rolling wave planning shines in projects where complete information is elusive and unexpected twists happen. It is a perfect fit for software development, where flexibility is key.

As the name says, the rolling wave approach can be seen as riding a wave and frequently adjusting your course. Dynamic rhythm reflects the essence of the approach: planning in smaller, manageable cycles while continuously adapting to new information and evolving project needs.

What is the difference between rolling wave planning and Agile?

Agile and rolling wave planning both emphasize flexibility and iterative work, but there are differences. Rolling wave planning focuses on the plan itself, breaking it down into manageable chunks and constantly updating them. It focuses on a gradual increase in the level of detail within each phase as the project progresses. 

Agile prioritizes the delivery of working software in short sprints, with the plan adapting during the iterations. Additionally, Agile prescribes specific frameworks like Scrum, while rolling wave planning is more flexible in its implementation.

How is rolling wave planning different from progressive planning?

Progressive planning, as well as rolling wave planning, requires dividing a project into phases, but with more upfront detail for each phase.

Rolling wave focuses on detailed planning for the near term (a few weeks or months) and progressively adds detail as the project progresses. It is flexible and adaptable. Think of it as zooming in on a roadmap and focusing on the next few turns while keeping the overall direction in mind.

Progressive planning begins with a detailed plan for the entire project, gradually refining it as it evolves. This approach is less flexible since changes to the plan might require significant revisions to earlier phases. It can be compared to having a detailed map of the entire journey, with occasional adjustments as roadblocks or shortcuts appear.

Why does a project manager need rolling wave planning?

Rolling wave planning can be a powerful tool, as it offers several key benefits to address complexities and contribute to overall project success. Here are 5 compelling reasons why project managers need to use rolling wave planning:

  1. To be agile and adaptable. The rolling wave approach helps react to changes, take new opportunities, and avoid getting blindsided. Think surfing, not chartering a course.
  2. For visibility and control. It helps focus on the near future, spots issues early, and make informed decisions before they blow up.
  3. For an engaged and collaborative team. This approach embraces shared ownership, more motivation, and better problem-solving. Build a ship together, not alone.
  4. For reduced waste and improved efficiency. It helps to avoid building bridges to nowhere and focus on what's relevant now. Saves time and resources.
  5. To keep strong stakeholder involvement. This keeps everyone informed, builds trust, and facilitates smooth decision-making.

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