Progressive Elaboration: Definition & Example

Instructor: Bob Bruner

Bob is a software professional with 24 years in the industry. He has a bachelor's degree in Geology, and also has extensive experience in the Oil and Gas industry.

Progressive elaboration is a project management technique that allows for detail to be added to coarse-grained project plans in an incremental nature. It is well suited to iterative development techniques.

Progressive Elaboration - An Analogy

If you are driving to some place you have never been before, you are likely to pull up a mapping application to get some directions. Before you start you might take a quick look to get a sense of the overall route, and to get a rough idea of how long it will take. But to get where you want to go, you will probably rely on the detailed directions of the voice assistant to lead the way. Even if it started pouring rain as you drove away, and you could only see a few hundred feet in front of you, you could still make steady progress towards your eventual destination. You would pay close attention to everything that was just in your view, and by following along with the detailed instructions available at every turn you would eventually arrive at your destination. This process of moving forward incrementally by focusing on your short-term horizon is quite like the process of progressive elaboration, which is a planning and delivery tool used in project management.

Progressive Elaboration Defined

We can start with the definition of these two words to see how they fit together. Progressive means that things happen gradually, or in stages, and elaboration means to add additional detail to a subject. A very short definition of progressive elaboration would be to add detail in incremental steps. We can also refer to the Project Management Book of Knowledge for a more comprehensive definition, which states that this process consists of 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.

The process of progressive elaboration aligns very well with the concept of iterative development, which has been widely adopted in software development in recent years. Iterative development formalizes the process of using successive iterations to continuously re-plan and deliver software, paying attention to adding new and more detailed information as development proceeds.

An Example of Progressive Elaboration

Imagine that you have an idea for a new application. You mention it to a few friends to see what they think, and everyone agrees that while it sounds good in theory, there are still lots of unanswered questions. In software or project management terms you are at the conceptualization phase of your project. You can see the big picture in your mind, but all the details you will eventually require are still lacking.

At this point you could sit down and try to plan everything you would need to do to create your application, but this is a daunting task given how much work is involved and how much you don't yet understand about your project. Rather than get bogged down, you make a few preliminary sketches of the application along with a few notes about how it all might hook together. As you show these around you get some feedback, and one of your friends even draws up some things on the back of a piece of paper, adding in some details you hadn't even considered. This is your first design elaboration, and it illuminates a key point about the process of progressive elaboration. In this process, what you start with in any plan may not be exactly where you will end up.

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