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How to use an iterative process for projects 8 min read
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The iterative process gives your organization the power to learn and improve through trial and error.

The iterative process is efficient and adaptable, so your company can respond quickly to new information and shifts in the market.

If you’ve ever managed a large-scale project, you know to expect the unexpected. Change can happen overnight — surprising test results, client feedback, and shifts in the supply chain can take your project in a completely different direction. Your project management methodology often determines how quickly and efficiently your team can respond to this new information.

When you’re working in an ever-changing business landscape or a short feedback loop, you may benefit from an approach to project management called the iterative process. This highly adaptable process involves short, repeated cycles that culminate in a product or concept you can test. These iterations give you the flexibility to learn, adjust, and manage risks, all while making continuous progress toward your goal.

In this article, we’ll explore how the iterative process works, the benefits it brings to your organization, and how you can use it to tackle projects of all sizes.

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What is an iterative process?

An iterative process is a technique you can use to improve a product, process, initiative, idea, or design. Your team starts by creating the first version of the product, testing it, and identifying necessary adjustments. Then you repeat the process, implementing the changes you identified in the previous round. Each iteration refines the product, bringing it closer to your desired result.

The iterative process is a standard practice in a range of industries, from software development to graphic design. Scientists and research and development teams often use iterations to refine their experiments; marketers rely on trial-and-error cycles to create more targeted campaigns. An iterative approach can also be useful at the organizational level — business leaders can run quick iterations to implement gradual change as they work toward more efficient and effective strategies, processes, and procedures. If you’re a team leader, the iterative process might be a core component of your project management framework.

The iterative process in project management

In project management, the iterative process helps reduce planning on the front end of a project, allowing you to start the first cycle with only a brief set of goals and objectives. Iterations are shorter than traditional development phases, so there are plenty of chances to consider new information and shift strategies as the project progresses. Since your team learns by trial and error, it’s easier to deal with big risks immediately, while they’re still easy and inexpensive to fix.

You can deploy the iterative process in different forms to suit the scope of the project and the makeup of your team. Many agile project management methodologies use iterations to break down complex, large-scale projects into smaller, more achievable sections. In the Scrum framework, iterations are called sprints; during each sprint, the team works on a phase of the project with defined goals and objectives. At the end of the cycle, they evaluate progress and adapt before moving to the next sprint.

When you’re working on a single, well-defined project, such as a software program or a logo for a business, a streamlined iterative process can produce rapid results. The feedback loop is quick and efficient, enabling you to implement what you’ve learned immediately. Before you decide whether an iterative approach is right for your team, it’s helpful to consider the potential benefits.

Benefits of iterative processes

When you use it on the right projects, an iterative process can have significant advantages for the business and team. Particularly compared to methodologies with defined phases, such as waterfall project management.

  • Reduced risk: During each iteration, your team members identify and eliminate small risks before they have the chance to grow into bigger issues.
  • Easy adjustments: Iterations provide a chance to pause and reflect at the end of each cycle. If you discover new information, you can incorporate it immediately in the next iteration.
  • Efficiency: Since the iterative process adapts easily to changes in your business, the industry, and the market, you can shift course quickly and maintain momentum. Team members can also tackle different parts of the project at the same time, allowing for faster progress.
  • Sustainable innovation: When you’re working through the entire project cycle during each iteration, you can try new ideas with minimal risk in terms of time and resources. This encourages teams to get creative and develop innovative solutions.
  • Increased morale: The continuous improvement in the iterative process gives your team a sense of achievement and progress. Because the entire project doesn’t rely on a single cycle, the stakes are lower, creating a low-stress, pressure-free environment.
  • Better quality: With each iteration, your team solves the small issues that often go unnoticed in a longer product development cycle. The result is a refined, high-quality final product.
  • Lower cost: An iterative approach makes it easier to sidestep the expensive delays and bottlenecks that are common in more extended development cycles.

Examples of successful iterative processes

Organizations, departments, and teams can all reap the benefits of the iterative process. Chances are, some parts of your business are already using iterations naturally.

Software development

Software engineers are the masters of the iterative process; they’re constantly adjusting and refining code to fix bugs, patch security holes, and improve the user experience. Once a cycle is complete, the developers release a new version. Think of the last time your phone or laptop received an update to the operating system — that’s an iteration in action.

Graphic design

The graphic design workflow is almost always built on iterations. The designer creates an initial concept or set of concepts based on the client’s needs and sends it off for review. Based on the feedback, they refine the design further. This process repeats until the designer and the client are satisfied. To minimize scope creep and control costs, designers often specify how many iterations are included in the contract.

Product development

When companies are creating and updating products such as appliances, smart watches, or running shoes, they often iterate in two stages. During the initial development processes, designers and engineers create new versions of the prototype until the product satisfies the end consumer’s needs. Iterative development doesn’t stop once the product hits the market. If demand is strong, it continues internally until version 2.0 hits the shelves.

The Apple iPhone is an example of an iterative process on a grand scale. Each new model results from an iteration that incorporates customer feedback, new technologies, updated materials, and competitive analysis. The result? A device with a higher-resolution camera, a bigger screen, and better waterproofing.

Digital Marketing

Digital marketers use rapid-fire iterations to tweak and target their online campaigns. Thanks to data analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, they can track real-time performance of an ad campaign, website, or social media post and make changes on the fly. If an ad doesn’t resonate with the target audience, a marketer can tweak the copy in seconds and deploy the updated version. With A/B testing, it’s possible to try multiple blog titles and see which one gets more clicks.

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How to use to plan and manage iterative processes

If you’re ready to integrate the iterative process into your workflow, or streamline existing iterations, gives you the power to build and customize tools to manage the process over the short and long term. Add building blocks on top of our Work OS to create a central hub for each team or project, and keep track of the progress toward each goal with Burndown Charts, Task Board Apps, and Scrum Boards.

As you work through an iteration, make sure the entire team is on the same page by notifying everyone in the Updates Section. Whether your process involves focus groups or internal testing, the widgets, apps, and views enable customized tracking, reporting, and communication.

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Frequently asked questions

What does iteration mean?

An iteration is a new version of a product, concept, or design that’s based on testing and feedback from a previous version.

Why is the design process considered an iterative process?

The design process is iterative because it involves multiple versions of a design or product. Each new version is created to solve the problems with the previous version, creating continuous improvement and refinement.

Integrating the iterative process

The iterative process is one way to make rapid, sustained progress on your team’s projects. Whether you’re developing a new product line or streamlining a business strategy, repeated iterations promote continuous improvement and innovation. With the project management tools, you can monitor and manage each cycle for a more efficient iterative process.

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