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Using rolling wave planning in project management 8 min read
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When it comes to project management, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. Different projects require different approaches. In the event a project manager doesn’t have all the relevant information prior to starting the project, an iterative approach is often the best option, which brings us to rolling wave planning.

Unlike more traditional project management styles where managers preplan the entire project before beginning, rolling wave planning allows teams to roll out plans and work back schedules as information becomes available. To determine if this management strategy is right for your next project, learn more about rolling wave planning and the benefits it has to offer.

What is rolling wave planning?

Rolling wave planning is a project management strategy that allows teams to execute a plan in segments referred to as waves. Unlike many other management strategies, rolling wave planning works even if some project details are not yet available. Project managers simply develop each wave based on the information available at the time, and teams make adjustments as new project details unfold.

This type of management style gives teams the flexibility to begin working on projects before final goals, objectives, and timelines are set. It’s also a good approach for projects that have extremely tight deadlines, such as one to two weeks, as it allows teams to start work right away, thereby speeding up delivery times. Rolling wave planning is similar to many Agile methodologies. However, there are some stark differences.

How rolling wave planning differs from Agile methodologies

Rolling wave planning and Agile methodologies are very similar. They are both iterative project management methods that are ideal for short-term planning objectives. Both management methods require daily team meetings. These are referred to as stand-ups in Agile planning and sessions in rolling wave planning. Additionally, both management styles break down tasks into small segments. These segments are referred to as sprints in Agile methodologies and waves in rolling wave planning.

As similar as these two management styles are, there are also some stark differences. Firstly, rolling wave planning is very order-specific. Teams must complete certain tasks in a particular order because future waves depend on their outcomes. Agile methodology, on the other hand, isn’t quite as order-focused.

Secondly, while both methods are ideal for short-term projects, rolling wave planning is best for those projects with very short time frames, such as one or two weeks. Given the structure of the rolling wave planning process allows teams to quickly adjust project tasks as more and more details are known, this methodology is very important in the project management process.

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Why rolling planning is important in project management

Rolling wave planning is particularly helpful for projects that have a very short delivery time frame, with final details of the project still evolving.

Rolling wave planning is just one project management technique teams use for software development. This technique works by using a series of waves to complete short tasks. Project managers plan each new wave based on the most up-to-date project details available.

Using these short-task waves along with daily team communication, project managers can set up a work breakdown structure to assign tasks and set timelines for deliverables. This initial process allows the team to begin work while project managers continue to collect relevant project details and develop upcoming waves. This is just one of the many benefits rolling wave planning has to offer.

Benefits of rolling wave planning

Although rolling wave planning is not right for every type of project, it does offer these benefits for short-term planning:

  • Speeds up project completion: Since rolling wave planning allows your team to start the software development process before all the details are in place, it can speed up project completion times and help your team meet tight deadlines.
  • Offers flexible management solutions: This project management style uses a series of waves. Project managers set new parameters and assign new tasks at the start of each new wave. This offers a higher level of flexibility to avoid the scope creep that so often slows down production and increases costs.
  • Increases team accountability: Successful rolling wave planning depends on all team members completing the necessary tasks within the current wave. Due to this requirement, accountability features must be in place to ensure everyone understands and completes their specific responsibilities for each new wave.
  • Adds a layer of transparency: Teams hold daily meetings, referred to as sessions, to keep everyone up to date on the latest project details and to give team members the opportunity to ask questions, address concerns, or offer suggestions.

The best way to maximize these benefits is to follow the rolling wave planning’s step-by-step process.

Rolling wave planning, step by step

The top benefit of rolling wave planning is that teams can start a project even though all relevant information is not yet available. Despite the lack of information, project managers can still follow a step-by-step process.

Set project requirements

The first step in the rolling wave planning process is to set clear project requirements, such as timelines, budgets, and deliverables. Although specific details may shift as the project progresses, managers should use high-level assumptions to develop a work breakdown structure that divides projects into smaller segments, referred to as horizons.

Plan first wave

Once the basic details of the project are set, project managers can break the first horizon down into a series of waves. Project managers should solely focus on planning the first wave using the most up-to-date details available.

Initiate the first wave

As the first wave begins, project managers should assign tasks along with strict deadlines. Daily meetings, referred to as sessions, help to ensure everyone is working toward the same goals and objectives. These meetings can also help to identify issues or areas of confusion, allowing adjustments to be made as necessary.

Continuing planning and managing waves

As the team continues to work on the current wave, project managers continuously gather more details about the project and future work and start planning the next wave. This process continues until the team completes all waves within each horizon and delivers the final product. Digital tools can help managers track project progress as teams complete each wave.

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See projects through to completion with and rolling wave planning

This is where’s Work OS platform can help. Having one location where project managers can delegate tasks, relay project updates, and monitor task progression ensures everyone remains up to date and stays on task.

For example,’s Project Overview Template is fully customizable and allows project managers to quickly set up project details and modify these details as necessary. The Feedback Tracker Template allows users and team members to provide quick and valuable feedback, as well as track potential programming issues. Additionally, the Project Tracker Board ensures everyone completes tasks on time before moving on to the next wave.

Frequently asked questions

What is rolling wave planning in project management?

Rolling wave planning is an ideal management style for completing projects with short delivery time frames and for which all pertinent details are not yet available. This management technique breaks tasks down into small segments referred to as waves. This allows managers to modify project details as more information becomes available.

When is rolling wave planning useful in a project?

Rolling wave planning is best suited to projects with very short timelines, such as one to two weeks. It’s also ideal for projects that lack all the necessary details at the onset of the project. When teams lack details, it’s difficult for them to use standard management styles that rely on developing a structured process right from the start. Instead, the rolling wave planning technique makes it easier for managers to modify project details as it progresses.

What is Agile rolling wave planning?

Rolling wave planning is very similar to Agile software development. In fact, both management styles require iteration planning and are best suited to short-term projects. One of the main differences is that rolling wave planning is very order-specific. This means that before moving onto a new wave, teams must first complete specific tasks within the current wave. Standard Agile planning methods typically aren’t as strict when it comes to the order of task completion.

Use rolling wave planning tools when working on a tight deadline

Standard project management styles can actually slow down the delivery rates of certain types of projects. If your team is working on a very tight time frame (one to two weeks) and you want to get the project started despite lacking all project details, rolling wave planning is one of the best strategies to use. This project management style combined with the right project management software and other digital planning tools can ensure your team meets even the tightest deadlines.

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