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Progressive Elaboration – Moving From the Unknown to the Known

April 7, 2010

It is the beginning of a new project.  You have that butterfly feeling at the pit of your stomach – a combination of excitement, anticipation and terror.  How are you going to make this work?

You take several deep breaths and remember that this is the same sensation you feel at the start of every project.  You know nothing at the beginning of the project.  By the process of progressive elaboration, you move from the complete unknown to a successful, completed project.

Progressive elaboration, is defined by PMBOK*as

“continuously improving and detailing a plan as more detailed and specific information and more accurate estimates become available as the project progresses, and thereby producing more accurate and complete plans that result from the successive iterations of the  planning process”.

In other words, we use the best practices of project management to uncover the requirements, plan a project that meets those requirements and do regular realignment as information is clarified or changed.  We will never know everything about a project at the beginning and yet we must start working towards the final outcomes.  We build iteration and flexibility into the project plan to accommodate the changes and refinements that we know will occur.

Once the baseline documents are reviewed and approved, we use change management to update our project plan.


Project Management Institute (2008). A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK guide), Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.


Definition of a Project 3: Progressive Elaboration

Progressive Elaboration

** “PMI”, “PMBOK”, “CAPM” and “PMP” are registered marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. GaryR permalink
    July 18, 2011 1:54 pm

    Thre is all kinds of websites describing rolling wave and progressive elaboration, however, there is’t one that also describes how to properly cost estimate when you are needed to have that information ready – at the start of the project. This is needed not only for project planning, but to give a proper project cost to the customer. As we have all heard, the “devil is in the details”, and without those details – which is where the complex issues can lie – may not be known until later, after the project price has been settled on.
    How to handle this issue…

    • August 3, 2011 4:59 pm

      How indeed to handle the issue of providing accurate estimates while not having all the details. It is a conundrum that all Project Managers and teams face. On the other hand, If we wait until we have all the details, we would never get projects or programs completed. The ability to manage stakeholder expectations while faced with uncertainty is one of the many challenges of Project Management. Wish I had a easy fix for you but I do not.
      Thanks for sharing,

  2. Mohammed Akeem permalink
    June 2, 2012 10:30 am

    I love the project management Institute


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