Rolling Wave Release Planning for Agile Delivery Teams


The basic idea with rolling wave planning 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 you see how a Disciplined Agile Delivery (DAD) team takes a rolling wave approach to release planning. This is a stable team that releases their product into production twice a year. The team has been in place for almost three years and as a result they no longer need to go through an Inception phase. The Construction phase is typically scheduled for twelve iterations. Their Transition phase still takes one week. Although they’ve automated their test and deployment scripts a long time ago they still need time for internationalization – in this case they need to finalize and acceptance test any translated work.

Figure 1. Rolling wave release planning on a solution delivery team.

Rolling wave release planning overview


Figure 2 overviews the level of detail that the team currently has captured in their requirements artifacts and in effect how they would show up in any sort of team work plan. The team is currently in the first construction iteration for the current release, implementing 5 user stories. There are thirteen additional user stories that have been explored in detail by the product owner which at the team’s current velocity is about one month of work. There are an additional thirty user stories identified but not yet explored, and several epics. In the middle of this current iteration the product owner is likely to run one or more look-ahead planning/modeling sessions (called backlog grooming or backlog refinement in Scrum). The goal of this effort will be to detail a few of the near term (yellow) stories to pull them into the very near term (green) category and maybe to even start breaking down an epic or two into more details stories. This effectively pulls work along in the plan. The team’s iteration/sprint planning session at the beginning of each iteration pulls work into the team at that point.

Figure 2. Solution release planning at construction iteration #1.

Rolling wave release planning iteration 1

An interesting implication of this approach is at the beginning of the iteration it isn’t clear exactly what the team will deliver. As you can see in Figure 2 only about one-and-a-half months of work has been explored in detail (eighteen stories in total), an additional two months of work (thirty stories) has been identified at a high level and the rest at a very high level. In addition, the stakeholder’s priorities could shift and different stories and epics could be prioritized higher in the team’s work item stack (backlog) later on in construction.

Now let’s work through what things look like at the beginning of iteration #8.   As you can see in Figure 3 the team is currently working on six stories and has eleven more that have been detailed out for the next month or so. There are thirty-two stories identified for the near term (yellow) category. Interestingly, Construction ends in about two months (remember, the releases are six months long with this team). At this point in time it’s fairly clear what the team will deliver, albeit with some room for change given that there is still to months of construction left.

Figure 3. Solution release planning at construction iteration #8.

Rolling wave release planning iteration 8


What Should the Planning Horizon Be?

In this example the planning horizon is fairly long because the team’s release cycle is fairly long at six months.   They chose to maintain about three months of details and kept everything else at a high level and that worked for them. We recently worked with a team at an e-commerce firm following the continuous delivery lifecycle where the distant future (grey) was anything more than two months away. As a result they had detailed requirements for the next two to three weeks (green), about the same number of stories that hadn’t been worked through yet for near term work (yellow), and then a collection of epics after that. The point is that you need to set your planning horizons according to the situation that you face. Context counts.


Capturing a Release Plan

A deliver team can choose to capture their release plan in several different ways, and could even combine strategies for doing so. Their options include:

  1. Maintain the plan manually. Many teams will capture their requirements manually, using paper to capture the stories, acceptance criteria, and any supporting artifacts. For the current iteration the team manages their work on a whiteboard with sticky notes or corkboard with index cards. Future work is often tacked onto a corkboard or maintained in file folders or similar containers. The advantages of this approach are that the plan is easy to evolve and work with (you’re moving paper around). The disadvantages are that reporting also becomes manual (perhaps you’re asked to estimate your expected delivery date or cost using burn up or burn down charts), it doesn’t easily support geographic distribution, and that this strategy may be anathema to your governance people if they’re not experienced yet with agile development.
  2. Use an agile management tool. Many teams choose to use agile management tools such as Atlassian Jira, VersionOne, Microsoft TFS, or Rally to name a few. These tools have the advantage that they support geographically distributed teams, they often also address any plan documentation needs for teams working in regulatory situations, they are often less threatening to your governance people, and they can even be integrated into any corporate reporting technologies your company has in place (such as Microsoft Project Server for example). The disadvantages are that they are often harder to use than manual strategies (regardless of the vendors’ marketing claims), agile management tools can still be threatening to traditional-leaning governance people because of they support a more agile way of working, and of course the need to pay for and learn them.
  3. Create a Gantt chart. Your rolling wave plan can also be captured using Gantt charts (yes, Gantt charts can be used in an agile manner if you choose). The article Agile Project Planning Tips works through how a Gantt chart evolves with a rolling wave planning approach. The advantages are that Gantt charts are a familiar way to communicate your schedule to others and that your existing management tools likely support them already. The disadvantages are that Gantt charts can still be a bit clunky from an agile point of view and that many project management tools make it too easy to capture details that often prove to be of little value in practice.

A potential point of confusion is what to call this sort of plan. Up until now we’ve been using the term release plan. However, as you can see in both Figure 2 and Figure 3 the plan extends to more than a single release of this product. This is really a “multiple-release plan” or better known as a product plan (not to be mistaken with a product roadmap, something that your product management efforts will often produce). More on this in the next blog posting in this series.

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