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Using Progressive Elaboration

Have you ever been assigned a project that seems to be "€œstuck" in the starting gate? There are stakeholders that support of the project, but there are too many unknowns, and not enough funding, to get the project launched properly. Here are some of the usual characteristics of this scenario:

Benefits: The benefits have not been fully developed. Benefits have been identified at a high level, but measurable benefit targets have not been established, or committed to. Stakeholders feel that quantifying the benefits will be dependent on making significant product and project related decisions (requirements, solutions, costs, time to market).

Requirements: Requirements are at too high a level to be able to define the work to be completed. Resolving open requirements related decisions, and adding specificity to the requirements will have significant implications on timelines, work effort, and cost estimates. Stakeholders also feel that requirements will be influenced by the capabilities and costs associated with potential solutions.

Solutions: There are several options available to solve the business problem. The different options have a wide range of costs, capabilities, and effort/time to implement. Decisions cannot be made on the final solution until due diligence on the solutions options is completed, and the requirements are more fully defined.

Funding: Project sponsors feel that the project has strong management support, but funding cannot be obtained until the business case is developed. The management team feels that without the business case they will be signing a "€œblank check"€ with no commitment on the project ROI. For the business case to be finalized the team needs to understand more about the benefits, requirements, and solution options.

In this scenario you often feel that you are caught in a "€œchicken and egg" type situation -€“ which comes first, the benefits, requirements, solutions, or funding? The obvious answer is that you need to go through the planning process to make relevant product and project related decisions, and establish the baseline plan. However, given this scenario there are still several challenges with getting the planning process launched:

  • Based upon the significance of the unknowns at the starting point of the project, there are a wide range of outcomes from the planning process–benefits, requirements, solutions, costs, and time to market.
  • Due to the size or complexity of the business problem, the planning process represents a significant effort.
  • Funds or resources are not approved to complete the planning effort.

What should you do? This situation represents a great opportunity to apply progressive elaboration techniques (also known as, rolling wave planning). The PMBOK® Guide describes rolling wave planning as a progressive approach to detailing the project management plan, where planning and supporting processes are completed in an iterative and on-going manner. This means that you plan to define and refine the project management plan beyond the initial planning process–completing project work to turn an unknown into a known, and updating the plans accordingly. Below I discuss several tips to using progressive elaboration to effectively launch & plan your project, and manage stakeholder expectations.

6 Tips on Using Progressive Elaboration

  1. Plan what you know - The place to start is to develop detailed plans (scope, schedule & cost) for the work that is required to better define the product and project. Many people would refer to this activity as the "plan for the plan"€. This initial planning effort may require a single iteration or several iterations to complete, depending on the size and complexity of the business problem to be solved. Developing this portion of the plan allows you to talk to project sponsors about what it will take to make key product and project decisions, and develop a baseline plan. This plan will include many of the following key deliverables:
    • Business Requirements
    • Solutions Analysis
    • Solution Selection
    • Project Managment Plan (project schedule, project budget, project scope)
    • Business Case (project ROI)
  2. Use Planning Components -€“ Decomposition of the plan will not be possible for all deliverables or components of the project (sub-projects) for future phases. Planning components are inserted into the WBS to depict deliverables or sub-projects that cannot be decomposed to the work package level. The planning components represent "placeholders"€ for the project areas with significant unknowns. Without planning components it is not clear to stakeholders the areas where additional work will be added to the plan upon completion of the initial phases of the project. It is difficult for stakeholders to visualize deliverables and sub-projects that are "€œmissing"€ from the initial plan.
  3. Establish a timeline & a rough order of magnitude -€“ One of the problems that stakeholders have with progressive elaboration is that they are uncomfortable investing in "€œup-front"€ work without having any visibility of what the "€œend game"€ looks like. Inserting planning components to depict future phases, and assigning rough order of magnitude type estimates (-10% / + 50%) helps establish an early perspective of the overall project plan (timeline and cost). This approach creates angst for many project managers because they believe that once an estimate is presented (no matter how preliminary it is), it is the date or cost that stakeholders will remember. My response to this concern is that there will be many situations where the stakeholders will not give you a choice but to present the "€œentire"€ picture. When I put together a plan in this scenario, I clearly depict the timeline and budget in two buckets: 1) what is known vs. 2) what is unknown. I will also clearly articulate the difference in level of precision associated with the two buckets.
  4. Insert meaningful milestones -€“ Milestones always represent a key component of a good plan because they highlight key events or achievements within the plan (e.g., approval of key deliverables, completion of project phases). With the use of progressive elaboration, milestones take on new meaning and importance. They represent points in time when the project team will have more information, and plan to make adjustments to the project plans. In most cases, there will be a milestone that establishes when the project baseline for the entire project will be completed and approved.
  5. Get funding for the first "€œwave" -€“ The key to the initial planning effort is to clearly articulate the scope, timing and cost associated with establishing the plan for the entire project. Your goal as the project manager is to obtain the funding for the "€œup-front"€ effort, and approval to launch the project. Before the project will be funded and launched you must convince key stakeholders of two things:
    • Based upon what we know today, this project has enough merit to invest in an "€œup-front"€ planning effort.
    • The "€œup-front"€ effort will be successful based upon the information detailed in the project management plan (scope, schedule, cost, and project management approach).
  6. Progressive elaboration in an Agile delivery model -€“ By definition, rolling wave planning represents an iterative approach. Therefore, this approach can be adapted well to an agile delivery model. Many agile teams refer to the "€œup-front"€ effort as "€œIteration 0". During "€œIteration 0", the team defines, prioritizes & estimates the product backlog, creates the initial product roadmap (articulating the initial content of each sprint), and plans the first sprint in detail. At the end of each sprint, the agile team will continue to use progressive elaboration techniques to re-prioritize the product backlog and adjust the product roadmap.


About The Author

Practice Manager, PMP
Steve manages our Project Services practice in Raleigh. In his 25+ years of project management experience has developed an extensive and practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches.