Progressive elaboration is a process of the Project Planning Process Group set out in the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®, 6th edition, ch. 3). It refers to the ongoing improvement of a project plan based on new learnings and insights obtained during the project lifecycle.
If you have come across changes and ambiguities in project you have managed, you will likely find that you have already used one or more of the examples of progressive elaboration introduced in this article. However, you might not have called this progressive elaboration, so read on for a further ‘demystifying’ of this term.
- What Does Progressive Elaboration Mean?
- Progressive Elaboration in PMI Methodology
- Examples of Progressive Elaboration in Different Project Situations
What Does Progressive Elaboration Mean?
The concept of progressive elaboration takes into account that an initial project plan is usually developed at a very early point in a project lifecycle. Detailed requirements and potential impediments are not yet known at that stage. Therefore, setting up an initial project plan requires assumptions and rough estimates. Over time, initially unknown activities and requirements become clearer and need to be reflected in a refined project plan. This process is called ‘progressive elaboration‘.
Progressive Elaboration in PMI Methodology
The PMBOK defines progressive elaboration as
‘the iterative process of increasing the level of detail in a project management plan as greater amounts of information and more accurate estimates become available.’Source: PMBOK®, 6th edition, glossary.
While this definition emphasizes the iterative aspect of progressive elaboration, this process is not limited to iterative project management approaches. Progressive elaboration also occurs in predictive and waterfall projects as well as in agile projects and, subsequently, in hybrid approaches. Read on to find some examples of this definition.
Examples of Progressive Elaboration in Different Project Situations
Rolling Wave Planning as a Type of Progressive Elaboration
Rolling wave planning is a technique that emphasizes 2 different levels of how details are reflected in a project plan. Short-term work and deliverables are planned in detail while mid- to long-term work is planned on a rather high-level. The missing details are incorporated when they become clearer as the project approaches the respective stage.
The PMBOK suggests that rolling wave planning be applied to work packages, planning packages and release planning in predictive as well as agile projects (PMBOK®, 6th edition, ch. 220.127.116.11).
Change Requests as a Result of Progressive Elaboration
A change request as a part of the change control process requires a project manager to deal with a potential and – if it is approved – an actual change to the initial plan. The identification of a need to change the plan as well as the subsequent amendment to the project plan are examples of progressive elaboration throughout the project.
While this is a procedure described in the PMBOK (ch. 18.104.22.168), change requests may not be the most ideal way of incorporating progressive elaboration in a project in practice. This is because of the efforts required and resources involved to prepare and obtain approvals for changes.
Ideally, a project is planned in a way that an increasing level of detail can be incorporated into the project plan by adding details to the existing planning items rather than processing them as formal changes (as long as it is in line with the project objectives and communication). However, if progressive elaboration requires relevant changes to the project plan, the integrated change control process is the right way to process them.
Regular Re-planning of Project Activities
In large, complex or long-term waterfall-like projects, reflecting on the project plan (and baseline) and re-planning activities and elements of the work breakdown structure (if necessary) are often inevitable. This is because of the ambiguity and unknown aspects of the endeavor at the time of the initial planning.
Examples of such projects are large construction, infrastructure, research & development or large IT projects. Building an airport, introducing a new ERP or Core-Banking-System, or developing new medicine come with such a complexity and unpredictability of some items that a detailed planning at the initiation stage may not be appropriate by any means. Nevertheless, stakeholders usually require a long-term plan for those projects which requires project manager to plan based on assumptions and, to some extent, with placeholders and buffers.
The rolling wave planning technique can be an option to resolve this trade-off. Also, more predictive or less critical activities can be planned in more detail for the entire project lifecycle while less predictive and more ambiguous items are planned according to the rolling wave technique.
Prototyping for Progressive Elaboration
A prototype can be a good facilitator for the project’s process of learning, refining requirements and adjusting the plan accordingly. If a waterfall-based or iterative software development project uses a mock-up to test assumptions related to the use of the software, user feedback on those mock-ups may lead to comprehensive changes to the project plan. Thus, learnings from interactions with users need to be incorporated into the project as a form of progressive elaboration of the project plan.
Backlog Maintenance in Agile Projects
As the Agile Manifesto defines ‘embracing change’ as one of its principles, progressive elaboration is basically ‘built-in’ in agile projects. This is obvious for Scrum, for instance, but also many other agile project methodologies and frameworks. Short iterations and development cycles as well as a prioritized list (a backlog) of product requirements that is maintained and refined on an ongoing basis ensure the project’s adaptability to new insights and requirements.
Thereby, delivering increments, seeking feedback and adjusting the backlog frequently are examples of progressive elaboration in agile projects.
If you have been working on real-life projects for some time, you might find some of these examples familiar. In fact, the term ‘progressive elaboration’ is only the name tag of an actual core activity of project planning: incorporating details or changes into the project plan once they become known to the project management.
The rolling wave planning technique is a common way of doing this in waterfall projects, but also other types of projects. Also, change management and processing of change requests are to some extent examples of progressive elaboration.
Agile projects with their natural openness to changes reflect progressive elaboration in both their structure as well as their tools and techniques. Structurally, short iterations and the regular delivery of increments as well as feedback on them facilitate the learning process of a project and naturally lead to changes. The backlog of product requirements supports the timely incorporation of these changes without the need for change requests or change control processes.
While an agile methodology might be more appropriate for projects subject to many changes, project managers are, in reality, sometimes required to manage non-predictive endeavors with a waterfall project approach. If this is true for our project, make sure you apply – or continue to apply – progressive elaboration to your project planning approach in order to incorporate upcoming changes iteratively.