What is rolling wave planning? (Definition and benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 14 November 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Different organisations manage their strategies or processes in different ways, and rolling wave planning (RWP) is one of these methods, with a strong focus on flexibility and iterative work. Developing a new product or service sometimes presents obstacles the team didn't anticipate, which may affect the project's outcomes. With RWP, teams and organisations respond to new information swiftly, so learning how to apply this methodology may be important for you. In this article, we define rolling wave planning, including its benefits, how to implement it and how it fares with similar concepts.

What is rolling wave planning?

Rolling wave planning is an approach to project management that lets managers plan or structure the project in phases, with the final stages often being mostly conceptual at the start but fleshed out at a later date. This perspective prioritises short-term goals and advancement, never abandoning the bigger picture but ensuring a strong focus on the most immediate and urgent tasks. The progress throughout a project happens in ‘waves', with the manager outlining the first few phases in considerable detail, so everybody's attention stays on these particular tasks.

With RWP, work typically begins before the managers themselves know the intimate details of the project's final stages. This is because the rolling wave approach and its structure account for this, giving them a strong level of adaptability throughout the process. For this reason, RWP is very prevalent in product development, where the final steps depend heavily on the performance and practicalities of the first ones. By adopting this approach, organisations set out short-term aims and milestones that match a project's scope. This tangible progress helps motivate the team further towards their overall end goal.

Related: Project management approaches: types of managers and methods

Benefits of RWP

The rolling wave framework promotes steady progress using short-term goals, which the team consistently focuses on. This is highly beneficial, as it ensures that employees don't forget the smaller-scale tasks they're working on in favour of the overall brief. This allows each ‘wave' of a project to get equal attention, which leads to higher standards across the board. The benefits of adopting RWP include:

  • Greater transparency: Managers and team members build a greater rapport throughout RWP thanks to its increased transparency, usually by providing detailed information about each key step. The clear schedule of RWP ensures that everybody understands what to do and knows as much about the project as its stakeholders.

  • Clear priorities: With RWP, every team member knows what the immediate next step is and what they might do to help the project. This also allows members to see how their short-term waves contribute to the product or service and how these components go together.

  • Promotes innovation: With each step receiving more attention, it's possible for people to develop more creative solutions to the project's problems as they emerge, especially as they devote more time to these problems. Team members may similarly amend their work in response to future changes, such as when the project's final steps come into focus.

  • Shortens overall timeline: Although the project's stages each get more time and focus, the efficiency of RWP results in the project itself having a shorter timeline. Team members work on their tasks without waiting for a plan from the manager, which also means they don't need more planning time between each stage.

Related: 6 phases of project management and their benefits (a guide)

How to implement RWP

With the benefits RWP may provide to organisations and projects, it's worth knowing how to implement it to get the same advantages. Every firm uses RWP differently to achieve its specific goals, but the typical methods of applying it shares many of the same steps. Here are the usual steps that organisations take to implement RWP:

1. Outline the project's requirements

Every project is unique in terms of its budget, resources and sector, so it's essential that you identify its key requirements and necessities. This helps you plan the project's stages and appropriate pace. This may involve speaking to key stakeholders such as clients and other managers, as meeting their needs is typically a core priority. Be sure to ask them about their thoughts on the project and any expectations they have so you know how they intend to assess the plan's success.

Related: What is a product requirements document? (How to make one)

2. Figure out the phases and steps

It's important that you know the correct way to divide your project into a series of useful stages, especially with the later steps potentially changing radically throughout the project. It helps to look at this as the project's milestones, signifiers of progress that show you're heading towards the end goal. If you're making a product of some kind, developing a working prototype may be a significant stage. Distribute tasks to the team and include deadlines so they may pace their work.

3. Fully plan out the first step

When a project begins, the first few phases are those with the most information to act upon. Project managers ensure their team members have everything they need for these, and they might even start the project before knowing the particulars of the final stages. For the first stage, it's vital that you provide a clear list of tasks or duties for the team to prioritise. This is especially important if these tasks are prerequisites for later stages. This step is the foundation for each one that comes after.

Related: How to create a project timeline in 8 simple steps

4. Manage the initial stages

While the team starts working on the project, it's critical that managers stay involved to ensure that everyone meets the project's requirements. This may include hosting daily meetings or planning sessions where you openly discuss the team's progress so far and ask them for feedback. You may use this to fine-tune the later stages. Consider sharing your own ideas where necessary and give updates on the plan if anything changes.

5. Keep planning the future phases

As the team progresses through their tasks, it's vital you continue working out the project's final phases. Using the feedback and information you get from managing the team or stakeholders, you may build a flexible timetable that accounts for more possibilities. You may face problems such as accommodating stakeholder feedback, which might impact how many resources are available at the project's conclusion. When compiling the plan for the last few phases, it's vital that you take this and other factors into account to guarantee the completion of the project.

Related: What are Scrum values and why do companies use them?

6. Evaluate the rolling wave strategy

When you complete the project, it's crucial that you assess the effectiveness of RWP. This illustrates how you might fine-tune the strategy for future products. The team's opinions are also important, so ask them about RWP and how you might improve it. An anonymous survey is a good way to collect their honest thoughts. This is a chance to compare the expected results with the actual outcome of the project and how to make the next one even better.

Related: 10 strategies for getting feedback from your team at work

RWP vs. Scrum

RWP is similar to forms of Agile methodology such as Scrum, but each approach has several notable differences. They're both iterative frameworks with continuous tasks working towards similar and successful outcomes, and both feature frequent meetings where the team shares their progress and identifies their goals for that day. The order in which you complete tasks is more critical in RWP, where the upcoming tasks depend upon completing the current one. In Agile settings, team members choose the next ‘sprint' from a backlog of tasks, which aren't necessarily in a certain order.

Another important difference between these strategies is the timeline they operate under. Some projects have tighter timelines than others, and RWP may help with this. This approach works best for projects that have a maximum of two weeks before the final deadline, as good management reduces the time between tasks and phases. Scrum-based projects usually have around a month or more to complete all of their tasks, giving managers more time to plan stages in advance, though not every project has this time.

Explore more articles