What Is an Iterative Process & How Does It Work?

As innovation becomes more important in many fields, so does a project management method that accommodates it. Traditional project management methods divide projects into sequential phases. This means that once you iron out one stage, the next one commences. With traditional methods, previous phases are concluded and set in stone. Iterative processes, on the other hand, allow for changes brought about by new needs and findings.

So, which method should you use for your project? It depends. Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each approach.

Read more: Best Agile Software & Tools for Project Management

What Is an Iterative Process?

To explain the differences between a traditional process and an iterative process, we’ll explore an example. Imagine that you’re building an e-commerce website for a small home business. Your project requirement is simple: A website that can display products, facilitate transactions, process payments, and receive delivery details.

Traditional/Waterfall Process Example

Here’s a general overview of how you can approach it through a traditional approach:

eCommerce graphic Traditional approach

  1. Identify the functions your website has to have.
  2. Ask a designer to create your sitemap, or website flow and layout, for all pages.
  3. Employ an artist to create the website assets and a UX copywriter to compose the copy.
  4. Hire a web developer to build the website using the designer’s plan and artist’s assets.
  5. Get a tester to check the website’s functions, and use a skeletal crew of web developers focused on fixing the bugs.

Iterative Process Example

If you opt for an iterative approach, the process becomes a little different:

eCommerce graphic Iterative process

  1. Identify the functions your website has to have, and organize them by priority.
  2. Build a team that consists of a designer, an artist, a UX copywriter, a web developer, and a tester.
  3. Ask the team to build a completely functioning page that displays all products and add them to a cart.
  4. Production takes place with the small functional team working together. Everyone contributes to the design, gives input to the art, and helps test the page for functionality and usability. Adjustments are made quickly and progressively until they finish this core functionality.
  5. Identify the next feature the team will focus on, and build it on top of the previous requirement. Repeat steps three to four.

While both methods go through the standard project phases (requirements, design, development, integration, testing), each technique executes it differently.

The traditional approach (also known as Waterfall) requires your team to iron out one phase before proceeding to the next. So, if you have already ironed out your website layout with your designer, any new insight the tester can have during a later phase can no longer be applied.

The iterative process divides the project into small parts and engages all stages as you work on each of them. This will allow you to use new insights in your work right away.

Iterative Process Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Continuous product improvementRequires high client involvement
High customer satisfactionTendency to stray from initial vision
Improved collaboration and flexibilityCan fail due to ego and team member biases
Empowered teamsChallenging to estimate costs

Iterative processes allow teams to respond to changes and new findings. Constant testing ensures higher usability. Plus, its collaborative approach empowers team members to share insights, maximizing each expertise, with each one of them learning from the other.

However, this approach requires high client involvement because of frequent deliverables, and not all clients are okay with this. It also poses a higher chance of the final product being different from the initial proposal because it encourages the application of new findings.

Compared to the Waterfall method, iterative processes can be more difficult to cost. New information may come with new requirements. Finally, its reliance on feedback and communication can backfire if members can’t communicate effectively.

Successful iterative processes encourage team members to find solutions amongst themselves rather than get directions from one manager. Teams where individuals are ruled by ego can make this approach counter-productive. You can use an iterative process if you’re working with a mature and communicative team and if your product can be improved incrementally or released in versions. Examples of these are games, music, or software.

But if you’re working on a project with a tried-and-tested process and where iterations can be costly, the Waterfall method may still be ideal. Examples of these are motor vehicle assembly and mass production.

Read more: Agile vs. Waterfall: Differences in Software Development Methodologies

Tips on Using an Iterative Project Management Method

Begin With a Vision and Clear KPIs

Changes are good when it comes to iterative processes — as long as they help you work towards a specific vision. Before starting a project, ensure everyone is aligned on the problem you’re trying to solve and what you want to achieve.

Remember that flexibility doesn’t equate to randomness. Every decision should be measured against a fixed result. Failing to do this will cause you to spend time and resources without accomplishing anything.

Empower Your Team

A critical difference between the traditional and iterative processes is that the earlier relies on a key authority figure to make the most important decisions. The latter allows all team members to collaborate. For this to work, empower everyone to contribute. While each member is a subject matter expert in their field, this doesn’t mean they can’t assist on matters outside their primary expertise.

To maximize everyone’s perspective and proficiency, encourage your team to open up and share insights.

Build a Healthy Feedback Culture

Feedback should come with an openness to accommodate ideas different from your own. Egos can get in the way of improvement, so it is important to foster a culture where each team member can deliver and accept feedback in healthy and constructive ways. Normalize asking questions and addressing criticism without ego.

Foster trust and solidarity, and constantly remind team members that they’re all working towards one goal where the team’s success equates to their individual accomplishment.

Document Changes

While iterative agile methodologies pride themselves on prioritizing working features over extensive documentation, it’s essential to understand that a certain level of documentation is still necessary.

Be diligent in tracking new findings, changes, and improvements your team finds along the way. These can help you relay updates and rationales with your stakeholders more effectively. It will also help you evaluate your project accurately to ensure constant improvement and growth.

Conclusion

Iterative processes can encourage project teams to innovate and collaborate. Consider using this method if your product involves a certain level of ambiguity at the beginning and if outputs do not necessarily have to adhere to what was initially specified. An iterative approach can be very practical for the right teams and projects.

Read next: What Is a Gantt Chart?

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Hannah Donato

Hannah Donato is a SaaS freelance writer for project management and productivity. Her works help SaaS brands become more relatable with actionable tips and relevant stories. Currently, she’s also an events manager and brand coordinator for a game development company in the Philippines, with four years of experience as a producer for games on multiple platforms.