Getting started with iterative project management

What is iterative?

In traditional (Waterfall) project management, objectives, budget, time frames, tasks and activities are already well-defined, whereas in iterative project management very little of this is done.

In an iterative approach to resolve a problem, you are venturing into unknown territory and you must acknowledge that you will go through many iterations and rework before you get to the solution

Iterative thinking is a based on a recurrent process of analysing, hypothesising, testing, validating and refining the process until you arrive at a solution.

*Iteration is the act of repeating a process, either to generate an unbounded sequence of outcomes, or with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an « iteration », and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration. (*Wikipedia)

Iterating in R&D

Iterative project management adapts itself very well to the 4 phases of the Scientific Method. These 4 phases are: 1. Analysis/Objectives, 2. Tasks, 3. Activities/Iterations (Hypotheses & Experimentations) and 4. Validation.

The first step in iterative project management is to analyse the situation and then define the project’s objectives. The project’s objectives are then broken down into tasks (tasks are a decomposition of the project’s objectives into more manageable parts or requirements).

An iterative process is then undertaken where the goal of the iteration is to propose an hypothesis to achieve the task’s objective and to define a solution (experimentation) to validate (confirm) or reject the hypothesis. The iteration will produce either a result that meets the task’s objective or new knowledge to help achieve the task’s objective. This new knowledge will be the stepping stone to propose another hypothesis to achieve the task’s objective and start another iteration. Each iteration is built upon the knowledge acquired in the previous iteration.

The prospect of being able to go back to revise the hypothesis and solution phase (or start a new iteration) can be made any time during the process. After having done a certain number of iterations that do not provide the expected results, you may consider revaluating the project’s overall objectives or simply abandon the project altogether. The objective of an iterative approach is simply to maximize the chances for a project success and not waste time going around in circles.

Iterative project management for R&D projects is much easier than waterfall project management because an iterative approach is more in tune with the way an R&D project progresses. An iterative approach to managing and executing R&D projects allows you to achieve a better balance between objectives: ‘where you want to be at the end of the project’ and commitments: ‘what the team must do to get there’. It is adaptive, and it is driven by risks and what has been learned so far, about both the product and the process used to develop it.


Getting started with iterative project management may require a culture change in project management practices for the management team and everyone else involved in the project. The implementation of a successful iterative program requires a progressive and adaptive approach to be taken to the management of the project and requires the whole team to embrace change and the continual improvement that this change will hopefully produce.