Why Rolling Wave Planning is an efficient way to plan your projects and programmes

Blog 07-04-2021
Why adopt rolling wave planning over more detailed, long-term plans? In our latest blog, in-house PMO expert David Walton explains why this approach works more effectively and how long-term plans may actually harm your change project.

David Walton

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” –Mike Tyson

I recently overheard a project manager talk about a 900-line MS Project plan. This was a business change project and the project was planned in detail for the next 12 months.

I have seen many examples of this type of very detailed planning for months in advance. In agile, there is a concept of rolling wave planning, but this concept has been around for a long time (pre-agile) and it is a very sensible approach to project planning.

There are three major problems with planning in detail for many months in advance, i.e.:

  • To develop a project plan in detail for many months in advance takes a lot of time and effort and this effort can be better spent in focusing on delivering the project;
  • As time elapses the project plan has to be constantly updated. This is usual in any project but planning in great detail for many months in advance requires a huge amount of effort to keep updating the plan which has no great value as the plan is changing so much.
  • Constant revisions to the plan cause the project team and the stakeholders to lose confidence in the plan as it is always changing. The plan which is a very important project or programme artefact has no credibility and the team members rarely refer to it as “it’s constantly changing”

The better approach to project planning is ‘rolling wave planning”. Rolling wave planning means you plan in detail for what you know, which is usually the short to medium term. You do not plan in detail for what you don’t know or many months in advance.

As the project moves forward and there are fewer uncertainties, you extend the detailed plan. If we assume a simplistic example that we only know the detail of the project 3 months out, then we start by planning in detail for the first 3 months, i.e. detailed activities, and the remainder of the plan just contains approximate milestones.

After one month has elapsed we then plan in detail for the next month, i.e. the next wave so we now have one month that has passed and a rolling 3 months of a detailed plan.

In this contrived example, we always have a detailed 3 months plan and a high-level plan for the rest of the project because we only know what is likely to happen on the project 3 months out.

Let’s take an example. Imagine you are going on holiday in 2 weeks’ time. You know where you are going and what you are going to do. It is relatively easy then to develop a project plan that ‘delivers your holiday’. It is easy to do because you know a lot of information about your holiday and the key variables.

Now assume that you are going on holiday in a year’s time, but you don’t know where or even the exact timing of the holiday. It’s pointless planning in detail for this holiday in a year’s time. If you did plan it a year in advance and the destination or timing changed then you would have to redo the majority of the plan.

This is just the same concept as a business change project, i.e. plan for what you know in detail and plan at high level for what you don’t know.

Summary

It is a false notion that planning in detail for the whole project is a sign of careful and diligent planning by the project team. In reality, it is not only a waste of valuable project resources, but it actually devalues the project plan in the eyes of the project team and the stakeholders.

Using rolling wave planning builds confidence in the plan and is a more efficient use of scarce project resources.

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