What do iterative and incremental mean in Agile?


Sensemaking in the Agile Forest


By Henny Portman

The Netherlands


Iterative’ and ‘incremental’ are common terms in agile organizations. Yet many people confuse these terms. I even notice confusion at the Internet. Some well-known examples are:

The top figure shows a staged approach, and the bottom figure is used to show an iterative and incremental development approach. The top figure example is correct.

If I look at the bottom figure, I see the following: From step 1 to 2 it’s a staged approach. The following steps, from 2 to 3, from 3 to 4 and from 4 to 5 are next iterations (restarts or pivots). The result of step 2 is insufficient and in step 3 a completely new vehicle is developed. And this repeats, so I would say this iterative but not incremental.

The following Mona Lisa painting figure from Jeff Patton is also a well know one. The bottom row shows a correct example of a staged or incremental delivery.

The top row shows on the one hand five iterations of the Mona Lisa painting and on the other hand you could stop after step 2 or 3, so, it’s also an incremental approach.

What do iterative and incremental mean in Agile?

In a nutshell:

  • In an iterative process, there is a systematic repetition of small steps.
  • In an incremental process, the number or size or functionality of the final product grows step by step.

To make it visual, the figure above shows four quadrants representing four approaches. These are created by the two axes. The horizontal line represents the use or non-use of an incremental process. Then the vertical line represents whether or not to use an iterative process.


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Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series by Henny Portman, one of the world’s leading authorities on “agile”. Based in The Netherlands, Henny coined the term “agile forest” in 2019 to describe the many agile frameworks that have emerged over the last 20 years.  This series is intended to help readers better understand the agile concept, navigate through the ‘underbrush’ and more successfully apply whichever framework is selected for their projects.

How to cite this article: Portman, H. (2022).  What do iterative and incremental mean in Agile? Sensemaking in the Agile Forest series, PM World Journal, Vol. XI, Issue VII, July. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/pmwj119-Jul2022-Portman-What-do-iterative-and-incremental-mean-in-Agile.pdf

About the Author

Henny Portman

The Netherlands


 Henny Portman, owner of Portman PM[O] Consultancy and was partner of HWP Consulting, has 40 years of experience in the project management domain. He was the project management office (PMO) thought leader within NN Group and responsible for the introduction and application of the PMO methodologies (portfolio, program, and project management) across Europe and Asia. He trains, coaches, and directs (senior) programme, project and portfolio managers and project sponsors at all levels, and has built several professional (PM(O)) communities.

Henny Portman is accredited in a variety of qualifications, including P3O, PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, PRINCE2 Agile, AgilePM, AgilePgM and AgileSHIFT trainer and an SPC4 SAFe consultant and trainer. He is a P3M3 trainer and assessor and PMO Value Ring Certified Consultant (PMO Global Alliance). On behalf of IPMA, he assesses mega and large projects for the IPMA Project Excellence Award. In addition to this, he is an international speaker, author of many articles and books in the PM(O) field, and an active blogger at hennyportman.wordpress.com.

Henny can be contacted at henny.portman@gmail.com.

To view other works by Henny Portman, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at https://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/henny-portman/