Does your new project lack a defined goal to work towards?
Or are you expecting rapid changes during your project?
Traditional project management defines projects in clear, distinct phases. But you may not be able to rely on the traditional method if you need to produce a working model quickly, or your stakeholders need to give input throughout the project execution process.
You’ll need a more flexible way of working to suit these conditions. We’ll show you a more flexible style of Agile project management designed for projects with moving targets or uncertain conditions: iterative project management.
What is an iterative project management?
The best scenarios to use an iterative project management style and its benefits.
How to plan a project using the iterative method with the best chances of success.
The differences between an iterative and incremental project management method.
Useful templates from Coda to get started with iterative project management.
What is iterative project management?
Iterative project management takes inspiration from the Agile and Scrum project management methodologies, which uses a set iterative sequence of work with a fixed timeframe to break down large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. Each iteration uses this method to deliver a customer-ready outcome or work product, leaving enough room between iterations to gather feedback from customers or stakeholders for the next iteration while plans are flexible enough to change between iterations.
To understand why iterative project management is such a radical departure, let’s look at the traditional Waterfall approach to project management.
Traditional Waterfall project management follows a five-step sequential workflow:
Instead of each step becoming their own phase, the five stages are executed together in a fixed sequence as a mini-project. The end-point of one iteration becomes the starting point of the next, and teams repeat this 5-step process as many times as needed until the project is completed.
: The Iteration vs. Waterfall method of project management, Lvivity
When to best use iterative project management?
Iterative project management is a flexible tool for project managers. Use this method when:
Project requirements are unclear or broad.
When you’ve defined a vision or ideal end-state but lack (or am unable to) create a structured plan with milestones to reach your end-goal.
When you foresee significant changes to business conditions or the product development environment over time.
When company culture or working environment fosters a collaborative working style. Iterative project management thrives on open communication and collaboration between the product owner, development team, and external stakeholders.
How does iterative project management work?
Using the Agile, iterative method, project managers divide into fixed periods between 2-6 weeks aptly named iterations. This provides teams a framework to plan, execute, deliver, test, and review value for a project.
Iterative project management consists of five distinct steps, performed during each iteration:
Planning: Define requirements and plan work to be done.
Analysis: Defining how to achieve project goals.
Execution: Executing on the planned work and Implementation of work products.
Review: Testing and gathering customer feedback.
Adjust: Based on feedback in previous steps, adjust the approach to start the next iteration.
Step 1: Planning - Define iteration requirements and objectives.
This step defines “what” this iteration seeks to achieve.
While this step seems like common sense, it’s essential not to skip it, as you risk building a work product not aligned with the overall project goal or strategy. Use this step to organize your documents, aligning your project scope with any hard deadlines while keeping stakeholder or organizational requirements at the forefront.
Step 2: Analysis - Solution architecture design and development.
After defining your goals in step 1, it’s time to look at achieving these goals.
Brainstorming and thinking happen in the analysis step. Some examples:
Design a technical model to meet your iteration objectives.
Sitting down with your stakeholders or project team members to design an approach.
Step 3: Implementation.
Your team executes the previous steps, creating the next iteration of your project deliverable.
The goal here is to meet the requirements set out in Step 1. You’re building on previous iterations to create a ready end-product to test and gather feedback.
Step 4: Testing and gathering feedback.
Your team tests the finished product of the iteration, identifying any bugs, crashes, or usability issues hampering its use before releasing. Some examples:
Functionality testing: If your iteration does what it’s meant to do.
Usability testing: Tests with representative users like end-customers to evaluate if the functionality fits their needs.
A/B testing: Comparing your new iteration with the previous iteration to figure out if there are any performance improvements or changes.
Once you’re satisfied with your testing results, consider presenting them to your project stakeholders, internal teams, or customers for them to provide feedback to take into the next iteration.
Step 5: Review and assessment.
Once you’ve completed testing, it’s time to zoom out again to review the entire process. Consider conducting a team retrospective at the end of the iteration; sitting down with your team and project stakeholders to review project progress, what needs to be done in the next iteration, and any changes to make.
Useful review questions to ask yourself:
Was the iteration successful in meeting project objectives? If not, what happened?
What worked during the iteration?
What didn’t work?
Is there anything we could improve?
What are the benefits of iterative project management?
Iterative project management enjoys these benefits:
Increased flexibility to incorporate changes or feedback.
Iterative project management aims to deliver a working product within weeks. Each development cycle ends with an opportunity to gather feedback from critical stakeholders or within the team — allowing the team to respond to any input or changes in the next iteration. And this flexibility results in a product that’s more aligned to the overall project objectives while staying agile enough to react to changes in scope, resources, or project requirements over time.
Quicker risk identification.
High priority risks and the steps to mitigate them are identified early on during the analysis phases of the iteration. The planning process also involves prioritizing threats based on probability and potential impact, in which the team can develop a response strategy to these risks and keep the project moving.
Easy version checking.
The iterative model naturally delivers improved versions of the work products compared with previous iterations. Furthermore, if a new iteration causes a significant issue, the team can quickly identify the issue between iterations and fix the problem or roll back to a previous iteration with minimal information or progress loss.
Clear progress encourages teamwork and motivates the team.
As iterations build on each other, a team can easily track and measure progress between iterations. The method also promotes close collaboration between teammates and other stakeholders throughout the project, reducing the risks of siloed teams.
when motivated team members have the freedom to experiment and try out new approaches without the fear of failure. Rapid iterations help generate and test ideas quickly. In contrast, clear feedback and results from each iteration allow team members to quickly identify what’s working and the effect of their work on the overall project.
Deliver business value from the beginning.
Because each project iteration delivers a ready-to-use outcome, projects using iterative project management have a business value much faster than projects planned incrementally
What is the difference between an iterative and incremental development approach?
Incremental project management builds a solution in parts. Work products are released one at a time before starting on another stage. A customer-ready work product is delivered only at the end of the project. In contrast, an iterative approach builds the overall solution or outcome as a prototype, gathering feedback on each iteration, and refining until completion.
Image: The differences between an incremental approach and an iterative approach when developing an e-commerce website (
An incremental approach specifies requirements upfront. Requirements for the iterative evolve and change as you build your product.
In an incremental approach, project requirements and goals are stated upfront before work begins. The team analyzes all potential problems, opportunities, and needs at the beginning before planning project increments in detail. Plans should ideally remain unchanged throughout the project lifecycle.
An iterative approach sets requirements at the start of each iteration and maps them to overall project objectives. The area of focus is narrower; requirements are set for the duration of an iteration to complete a work-ready product. They vary between iterations, depending on changes in scope, feedback from stakeholders, or resources available.
Each approach requires a different type of engagement from the team.
In an iterative process, iterations last two to six weeks. Each iteration is essentially a mini-project, going through the entire project cycle of planning, executing, gathering feedback, and reviewing progress during each iteration.
In the incremental approach, teams develop work products in chunks. Team members progress through the project cycle sequentially, refining and adding functionality until it’s ready to release. Customer-ready products are only released at completion, after which requirements are re-planned for the next chunk of work.
Four principles to successfully employ the iterative project management method.
Now that you’re aware of the differences between the two styles, how do you apply the iterative method effectively to your project?
1. Create a transparent feedback team culture.
Giving and receiving feedback is central to the iterative process. Getting constructive feedback on work products helps the team deliver a better product in the end. However, feedback not given or accepted in a healthy manner can cripple team morale and productivity.
As the project manager, you can create a healthy, supportive environment for feedback. Think of the relationship between a coach and a sports team, where conversations refer to the group as a collective unit rather than focusing on individual performance.
Some actionable strategies to help you cultivate an environment receptive to feedback:
Encourage a respectful tone when talking about feedback.
Lead by example by sharing your wins, losses, and lessons learned during iterations in the open.
Encourage each team member to review their performance during previous iterations before reflecting on it during a collective feedback session.
Set clear expectations around the structure of feedback sessions; defining goals, who gives and receives feedback, the frequency of these sessions, and how to do it.
2. Plan the work internally with the team.
While traditional project management uses a top-down work planning approach, you’ll need to adopt a collaborative approach with iterative project management.
Get the people involved in tasks to actively make the decisions on planning the work and setting goals for each iteration. Not only does this approach encourage ownership of tasks and motivate the team member to deliver on what they intended, but it also provides a more accurate estimate of timelines, resource availability, and any task dependencies that may affect progress, minimizing the risk of inaccuracies during the planning process.
3. Distribute and manage team workloads.
Another crucial aspect to think about is managing your team workload to maximize performance and reduce overwhelm.
Consider three aspects when managing team workloads
Capacity planning: Get input from your team on their availability in an iteration while planning.
Prioritization of work: Order tasks in terms of priority and focus on high priority items first.
Regular check-ins to monitor team health: Schedule check-ins with each team member to see where they stand with their workload, especially if you notice that an upcoming iteration requires more of their time.
4. Be disciplined about documentation.
An iterative project thrives on adapting to change. But to avoid yourself getting lost in the sea of change, set up a system and track any new lessons learned team feedback and the improvements you’ve made with each iteration.
Diligent documentation serves two purposes:
Communicating updates and justifying decisions to stakeholders.
Keeps you on track with overall objectives and takes note of decisions made during the project.
Plan and track your iterative projects with these Coda templates.
Need support following the iterative approach in your next project? Here are a few templates to help you plan and execute your project tasks.
Basic project management template.
If you prefer a more visual project management method, this
. Track tasks assigned by iteration make notes on things accomplished and lessons learned while keeping everything organized.
What you can do with this template:
A comprehensive task list allows you to sort tasks into categories and track progress.
Summary charts for quick reference.
Add and customize properties to each task like assigning priority levels, task descriptions, and more.
Iterative project management FAQs
Why is an iterative process needed in project planning?
Iterative methods help projects get off the ground quickly and support team members adapting to changing conditions. Iterations split work into small chunks, allowing team members to generate, test, and refine ideas rapidly while fostering collaboration between the project team members and stakeholders.
Is agile incremental or iterative?
The Agile methodology combines both iterative and incremental. Projects using the Agile methodology plan work to be completed and improved in iterations until the team reaches a final product. It’s also incremental as the group delivers completed work throughout the project, building on previous versions.
What is an iterative project?
Iterative projects split the development into multiple iterations, ensuring projects deliver value as quickly as possible while keeping the development process open to refinement and feedback. This model is commonly used in software development and design, and applies to marketing and engineering.
What is an iterative process?
The iterative process delivers a working product by the end of the iteration quickly while allowing space for improvements in future iterations. The cyclical process of planning, execution, reviewing progress, and adjusting the approach based on the iteration’s results is repeated throughout the project until its completion.