Planning for the Unknown

Have you previously had an issue with identifying and applying the appropriate strategies for developing your current staff in order to reach an essential organizational goal? If so, you are not alone. This issue is common when embarking on a new project where the management team has very little information regarding the details of the work to be performed to meet the customer’s expectations.  Therefore, the customer’s ill-defined problem set creates a unique management challenge with multiple barriers to a successful project outcome.  To help with this challenge, consider applying what is known as the “rolling wave planning.”

According to the Project Management Body Of Knowledge 4th edition, rolling wave planning is defined as, “[a] form of progressive elaboration planning where the work to be accomplished in the near term is planned in detail at a low level… while the work far in the future is planned at a relatively high level… but the detailed planning of the work to be performed within another one or two periods in the near future is done as work is being completed during the current period”. Using this method, managers create a work breakdown structure (WBS) that identifies the major tasks to be accomplished, and provides as much detail as possible in the work to be performed in each of those tasks.  Many times, the first and second phases of each project are the only ones that can be adequately planned in detail, as much of the follow on work to be performed from these phases are not yet known.  Such is the nature of performing work tasks using true scientific processes.

Once the project is initiated, the definition of the problem begins to form, allowing the management team to start planning tasks for follow on phases of the project while the beginning phases are being carried out.  The projects plan is expanded in level of detail for the follow on phases, while carefully balancing requirements from multiple other projects that are being conducted concurrently.

Effective rolling wave planning is a complex process that requires constant attention by project and program managers to constantly balance the area of triple constraints; cost, time, and project scope.  However, be warned that it is easy for a project to undergo “scope creep” (i.e., moving beyond the parameters of the project scope) during execution of a project that is using rolling wave planning.  For this reason, the management team must constantly be cognizant of the scope of each project to ensure that no additional features or functionality are added into each project without the approval of the customer.

Rolling wave planning is an effective method for projects that have loosely defined methods for obtaining the projects objective. This method requires constant communication and collaboration between team members.  What are some of the methods you use to plan and execute your business operations?


About the Author:


Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

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