The rolling wave in project management

the rolling wave

The rolling wave technique is a method that allows the project manager to plan a project while it is taking place.

In short, this technique requires iterative planning.

This type of planning is very similar to that used in Scrum or in other Agile methodologies.

In essence, the rolling wave method allows you to plan until you have visibility to implement the plan, while the next steps are planned while working directly to the previous phases.

An example of rolling wave

A simple example of rolling wave is one where you expect to complete a project in eight months, but you only have clarity for the first three months. In this case, the first three months are planned.

As the project progresses and greater clarity is achieved, the following months can be planned.

The rolling wave technique uses progressive processing, which means processing work packages in more detail as the project unfolds.

But be careful that it does not mean that this planning method does not exempt the project manager from creating a list of milestones and assumptions for the project.

It is necessary to provide milestones and the key hypotheses as they will help stakeholders to understand why they are using the rolling wave method and what to expect while the project progresses.

 When to apply the rolling wave method

This method can be applied when:

  • It is not possible to define a detailed project plan shortly.
  • It is not clear which deliverables should be produced.
  • It is not possible to organize the different phases of the project.

The rolling wave method is particularly useful in projects with high uncertainty. Therefore, it is necessary to use the best risk management practices.

The rolling wave planning, therefore, is the process of breaking down the work breakown structure into time intervals.

At the end of each phase, the project manager will study the structure of the WBS and will expand it to include more details.

It is particularly suitable for projects where the work involved in a phase is highly variable and depends on the result of the previous phase, such as projects that require prototypes and, in general, in the engineering sector.

The advantages of the rolling wave method

This type of approach to project management is particularly useful when the availability of the information needed to plan future work packages in detail is based on the successful completion of the previous phases of the project.

This technique can also help reduce turnaround time in two ways:

  • By allowing the start of productive activities without waiting for every detail of the work to be determined in advance.
  • By eliminating downtime for additional planning in the middle of a project, since planning is performed continuously.

This type of planning also has the following advantages:

  • Encourages adaptability
  • Encourages planning
  • It is excellent for research and development projects, high technology and inventions
  • It is excellent for projects with variable capacity

The rolling wave planning is done in 4 simple steps:

  • Create the WBS.
  • Divide the project into phases.
  • Provide a realistic level of detail for each phase.
  • Once the considered phase is completed, return to step 1 to manage the next phase.

The steps of the rolling wave planning

rolling wave

Now let’s look at these steps in detail.

Create the WBS

The work breakdown structure is the nucleus around which all the other project management planning processes take place.

This involves splitting each project into single work items.

Each work item requires an identification number, a description, and a member of the team responsible for that particular activity, and sometimes it has additional elements such as budget, expiration date, and dependencies with other tasks.

Throughout the project life cycle, these work items are monitored and progress is recorded and reported.

Divide the project into phases

The phases are more simply the points in which an important moment for the project in general takes place.

For example, if we consider the creation of a prototype, a phase could be concluded with the presentation of a first prototype model.

From this stage others may follow, depending on the result – which is still uncertain. For example, the prototype could be accepted, thus starting the large-scale production phase, or it could be declared unsuitable, thus starting the re-elaboration phase.

Provide a realistic level of detail for each phase

Clearly, as you continue planning on the timeline, the phases will have less and less detail.

This is a clear concept in the rolling wave methodology, given that information on future steps is few or there are no information at all.

The work breakdown structure will therefore contain less details regarding the successive phases, but these will be reviewed and completed when the phases begin to be near in time.

Once the considered phase is completed, return to step 1 to manage the next phase

There is not much to say at this point. As explained above, as the project continues in its cycle, it will be possible to determine and manage the phases that come near in the future.

In general, it is always important, before starting with the execution of a project, to have a plan at the beginning of any project.

If the project will be known in detail immediately, it will be possible to continue with traditional planning, otherwise the rollign wave method can be used.

Choosing the wrong planning methodology can lead to loss of control over the project.

We have the tools, we have the culture.

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