Introduction to Rolling Wave Planning

Rolling wave

For a long time now we’ve been applying what’s often called rolling wave planning with our clients. Rolling wave planning is applied in several areas of the Disciplined Agile (DA) framework, including release planning by a delivery team, technology roadmapping, and product roadmapping to name a few.  This blog overviews this important practice.

The basic idea is that you plan things that are near in time to you in detail and things that are distant in time at a higher level. The thinking is that the longer away in time that something is the greater the chance that it will change during that time, therefore any investment in thinking through the details is likely wasted. You still want to plan at a high level to both guide your current decisions and to set people’s expectations as to what is likely to come.

In Figure 1 below you see an overview of how rolling wave planning works and in Figure 2 an example of how a Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) team applies it for release planning. Upcoming work is planned in detail, the planning unit “X” is one month in the case of the delivery team. In order to do their work they need detailed user stories and supporting artifacts such as acceptance criteria and supporting models such as user interface (UI) sketches or data source analysis. They have this information for the work that they are doing right now as well as about one month’s of upcoming work. They don’t yet need details for work that is several months away in time. In this case for work that is two to three months in the future they only have user stories developed and work that is four to six months away epics. Work in what the team considers to be the distant future, in this case six or more months away, is described in very high-level terms such as epics or solution capabilities.

Figure 1. Rolling wave planning overview.

Rolling wave planning overview

Figure 2. Rolling wave release planning on a solution delivery team.

Rolling wave release planning overview

Part of the work that the team is doing right now is to keep their plan up to date. For example, if they are working in two week iterations they will pull two weeks of work into the team. During the current iteration they will pull about two weeks of user stories from the near term category (the yellow box in Figure 2) into the very near term (the green box). They may also bring upcoming work into the near term category at this point too.

Rolling wave planning has its source in iterative software development such as the Rational Unified Process (RUP). It is a strategy that is commonly applied by agile software teams and the Project Management Institute (PMI)’s Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBoK) supports it.

In future blog postings in this series we will work through examples of applying rolling wave planning in practice.

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