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Rolling wave planning, also called progressive elaboration or progressive planning, is a method of iterative planning that can be used when scheduling too far ahead is difficult or impossible.
According to the APM Planning, Scheduling, Monitoring and Control Guide (2015), rolling wave planning is ‘the planning density that can be achieved at different times in time. More detailed planning is done in the immediate future, and less detail towards the end of a project.
Rolling wave planning allows you to plan in smaller, incremental steps. Because you are only creating a detailed plan that is short-term, smaller steps are easier to manage and track.
The schedule is composed of waves: each wave contains tasks that are planned at a suitable level of detail or density. For tasks that are short-term, use high-density, detailed planning. This could be the next month, 90 days, or any other time frame that is appropriate for the overall duration. This is a detailed schedule of all the work that must be done during this period.
The medium-term horizon is the next wave. It consists of tasks with medium density. They will be longer in duration and more granular, but still represent the effort required.
The long-term horizon can be represented by one or more waves, where tasks represent large groups of work or phases. These tasks are not very specific, but serve more as place markers for activities still to be planned and fully thought out.
The project manager can review the schedule as the team works and add detail to the next waves. You end up with a plan which is constantly reviewed, refined, and expanded in a timely manner. It’s a smart way to plan.
Rolling wave planning has many benefits
Rolling wave planning has many benefits:
How to manage uncertainty
Helping project stakeholders to see the whole picture, even if they don’t have all the details
Reduce the amount of planning upfront.

How to manage uncertainty
Many projects are unpredictable. You may not know what the work will look like in the end. Some projects have a complex scope and high level of complexity. You don’t know what you’ll need to do as you go. It is helpful in managing uncertainty and dealing the inevitable scope creep.
The specific project tasks you need to accomplish may depend on the outcome of your design phase. They might also change after you have conducted customer focus groups. You might have agreed to roll out a new service to a few customers and then plan to make it available to all customers if it is a success.
Stakeholders can see the whole picture
Your sponsor will expect to see the timeline, but the exact deployment schedule is going to depend upon the order in which you extend the service to customers. You don’t yet know this.
A detailed project schedule is useless if you can’t predict what’s going to happen with any degree of certainty. It will be difficult to modify it later, and you might have set expectations with stakeholders that you need to revisit.
Reduce the amount of upfront planning
Rolling wave planning cuts down on the amount of planning required upfront. Managers love this because it allows them to get the team started on delivery work quickly and they can see progress faster.
Rolling wave planning does not make it easy to schedule. Rolling wave planning is a calculated move to show progress in creating a realistic schedule. This is a good technique to use if you have multiple projects.
How to create a rolling plan
A rolling wave plan begins with knowing the key milestones and governance points. These are the key points.