Progressive Elaboration vs Rolling Wave Planning and Prototyping

3 minute read    Updated:    Harwinder Singh

Progressive Elaboration and Rolling Wave Planning in Project Management (PMP) Some PMP aspirants get confused with the difference between Progressive Elaboration and Rolling Wave Planning. The concepts are so similar that the confusion is legitimate. So, let’s understand these concepts and look at the differences (or similarities). We’ll look at a third concept - Prototyping - while we are at it, all with the help of some easy to understand examples to reinforce the concepts.

What is Progressive Elaboration?

Planning is an iterative process. Often times, it’s difficult to do detailed planning of a project in the beginning. As the project evolves, and more specific and accurate details are available, the planning gets more detailed. With each successive iteration of the planning process, the project plan becomes more elaborate and complete. This approach to planning is known as Progressive Elaboration.

According to the PMBOK® Guide, 6th Edition:

Progressive elaboration involves continuously improving and detailing a plan as more detailed and specific information and more accurate estimates become available. Progressive elaboration allows a project management team to define work and manage it to a greater level of detail as the project evolves.

Two forms of Progressive Elaboration

The PMBOK® Guide, 6th Edition mentions two forms of Progressive Elaboration - Rolling Wave Planning and Prototypes.

What is Rolling Wave Planning?

Rolling Wave Planning is one of the techniques in the ‘Define Activities’ process under Project Schedule Management. In this technique, detailed planning is done for activities in near term and high-level planning for activities to be performed far away in the future. As the project progresses, and requirements become more clear, more detailed planning is done for the work packages at lower levels of the WBS.

What better way to understand a concept than looking at an example. Let’s say you want to visit India on vacation and your objective is to have fun and explore the country. However, you’ve never been there before. You do however know some places of interest like The Taj Mahal. Initially, you decide that you’ll leave on Dec 20 and return on Jan 04. You book your flight tickets and hotel room in New Delhi (one of the cities with an International Airports). Once you reach New Delhi, you talk to the locals and figure out all the places of interest. Then you plan your days, like when you want to visit each place, how you are going to get there, where you’ll stay, what you’ll do there, etc. Your plans become more detailed as days progress. This is an example of Rolling Wave Planning.

What are Prototypes?

Prototypes are a technique in the ‘Collect Requirements’ process under Project Scope Management. Prototyping is a method of obtaining early feedback on requirements by providing a “tangible” working model or a mock-up of the expected product before actually building it. It gives stakeholders an opportunity to test and experiment with a model of their final product and give them a way to ‘visualize’ their end product. Prototypes help to identify problems early in the project and reduce project risks.

Let’s take an example again. Your company wants to build a commercially viable model of a Hydrogen-powered car. Initially, your researchers build several working models (prototypes) of the car, maybe of a smaller size, to conduct experiments and check the feasibility of the project. Based upon the results of the feasibility studies, your company decides whether to move forward with or kill the project.


Rolling Wave Planning and Prototyping are forms of Progressive Elaboration.

Image credit: Flickr / 92334668@N07

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Good post indeed.
About the Rolling Wave Planning technique, I prefer to think about it using the word 'schedule / schedule' instead of 'planning', because the technique is about scheduling activities and because 'planning' is so vague (just think about the several subsidiary management 'plans'). Now I agree, you could also say that you 'plan activities', I agree; it's just a matter of taste :-)
Keep your posts coming,

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Think about rolling wave. Flat before the hump and flat after the hump. Work under execution and in immediate future requires detailed plan. Finished work and work far in future plan will be presented at summary level only. Dear Harwinder I think if you show the real picture of a rolling wave, how it travels, it will help a lot to under stand rolling wave planning concept.

Great work Harwinder. Keep it up.

Iftikhar Gaur

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If progressive elaboration include mockup , when considering options do you recommend mockup for each option? Mockup normally require certain level of details so I think is a waste of time to do for all options.

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I’m still not seeing a difference b/twn Progressive Elaboration and Rolling Wave Planning; they seem to be the same, in that you work with the information you have on-hand, and then as you progress, more details become available, and and then you can plan at a more detailed level. I’m just not seeing the difference. Please help. Avatar

Rolling wave planning means it elaboration of near term activities in details , it is more focused on work items, where as progressive elaboration is for all aspects of project management plan (scope, risk etc). These two terms many time used interchangeability , progressive elaboration is bigger term which includes rolling wave planning.