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Being iterative and incremental in software development

PostsSoftware development
Backlog Staff

Backlog Staff

March 13, 2021

This post was originally published on June 6, 2018, and updated most recently on March 13, 2021.

When developing software, your approach to project management will make or break your product. In agile software development, teams are likely to employ incremental or iterative techniques. However, trends over the past few years show us that teams thrive when using both.

Below, we’ll examine how and why both approaches work and why they are better together.

Implementing incremental development

Incremental development involves breaking up your development plan into smaller, working pieces. Those pieces are then developed, implemented, and tested piece by piece. Rather than delaying feedback until final delivery when time and resources have already been spent, incremental development ensures that teams can use feedback to make changes early and often.

Teams tend to like an incremental process for several reasons. First, it saves them a lot of time in the long run, as teams are able to test more frequently and iterate on their work before investing in coding more of something that isn’t ultimately going to work.

In doing so, team members can feel more productive in the right ways. They get to check off to-do items more frequently, and they can address problems sooner and faster.

Secondly, this frequent testing allows teams to be more flexible when new circumstances arise. Rather than an unexpected change throwing off the entire project, teams are able to use this information to regularly adjust their plans.

A downside: The price of a project using incremental development does tend to total more than waterfall typically would. However, when you take into account the long-term costs of making changes to a waterfall project after time for proper testing and feedback, this price difference might disappear.

Implementing iterative development

Iteration is the process of refining what you build. Building in increments would lose a lot of value if you weren’t thinking iteratively about each piece. The iterative model is comprised of the following stages:

  • Planning
  • Designing
  • Implementing
  • Testing
  • Evaluating

In an iterative model, your team makes progress by repetition that refines the software until it meets its goals. The goal is not to create a functioning element each time, but to improve the product overall each time.

Teams enjoy the iterative model for making versioning even easier during development. Reverting to an older iteration is fast and straightforward. Furthermore, iterative methods use smaller timeframes for additional time-saving. Each timeframe is customizable to your team’s needs while living up to the agile project management moniker.

One negative aspect of the iterative model is the method’s tendency to make later-stage adjustments quite costly since each change requires a new round of the iteration process. Furthermore, with user feedback coming in at all stages, feature creep is always a threat to deadlines.

Succeeding with iterative project management

Similar to the actual building process, managing a project iteratively can help a project to succeed. When a project manager uses iterative management, the details of the project can change as you meet each step of the process. This allows the team to account for any unexpected successes, setbacks, or other types of changes that occurred during development.

A successful iterative project manager will be able to make these changes quickly and without too much fuss along the way, listening to other members on the team to make sure the timelines and budget still correctly fit the reality of the project. With an iterative management style, you won’t have to make any hasty changes at the end of the process and no one will be scrambling to meet now unrealistic deadlines.

The phases of incremental and iterative development

  • Inception Phase includes a higher-level look at the project scope, tangible and intangible requirements, and risks.
  • Elaboration Phase takes the risks you identify in the Inception Phase and start with the working architecture that meets non-functional requirements.
  • Construction Phase takes the architecture you put in place finished code that passes the iterative model already.
  • Transition Phase pushes the final product to production.

Being both

All agile processes are iterative and incremental in their approaches. Alister Scott made an excellent point when he explained how we couldn’t build without iterating to a degree, just as we can’t release anything without incrementing. The two overlap in their duties and functionalities, so it is difficult to separate the two completely.

When it comes to complex software, each technique fills in the gaps the other creates. In using the two together, you can complete your software in increments while delivering completed work throughout the course of the project.


Today, software development demands both iterative and incremental methods. With a combined development approach, your work is sure to be both reflective and productive. In turn, your final product is well-positioned to be efficiently vetted and enhanced by the goals that were previously set.



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