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The Basics: Iteration

Updated: May 7

A beautiful, spiral staircase, viewed from above

Iteration is the act of a repeated process, or the result of that process. In Scrum, the time dedicated to an iteration is called a Sprint, and I’ll cover that in another article. Today, I’m going to describe a Lean version of iteration, which focuses more on the product than the process.

Suppose you’re launching a business, and it needs a website. Many entrepreneurs that I work with find themselves paralyzed by the belief that they need to finish the entire website before launching their business. They’ll spend hours picking out the perfect design, fussing with typography and colors, worrying about which technologies to use, and trying to develop a huge library of pages. Needless to say, that takes a long time and seriously delays the start of their business.

The truth is, most of the time all they need is a landing page to let their customers (a) know what they’re offering and (b) purchase it. This can be done in an afternoon, which allows them to be in business more or less immediately. In addition to letting them get started selling stuff, that one-page website allows them to begin the learning process of what kind of web presence they need. The landing page is now the first iteration of their website.

The reason iterations are so important is because it is only at the end of an effort that you get the results which allow you to learn. A writer only learns how people are going to respond to their ideas after they publish. A developer only learns how their app impacts their users after it gets into those users’ hands. A service provider only gets feedback about their service after providing that service to a customer. A person aspiring to regular workouts is only going to learn how to get themselves to go to the gym regularly once they actually go there. 

Iteration is powerful. Want to become an amazing artist? You’ll make better progress doing a hundred 5-minute sketches than five 100-minute drawings. (I challenge anyone to try this.) If you don’t have that kind of time, spend 20 minutes on ten 2-minute sketches on Object A versus two 10-minute sketches on Object B. It’ll take you less than an hour and you’ll see what I mean as soon as you're done.

Only finished work is valuable. It’s tempting to start a bunch of things, because beginnings are very inspiring. And it feels productive: you have a dozen half-finished articles, for example. Or a website that is beautiful, but not ready to be published yet. But unfinished, unpublished articles have no real value because no one can read them. And unpublished websites sell nothing. What if life happens and you never get around to finishing it? So you must ensure you have some finished item in each iteration, lest all of that invested time go to waste. 

It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it just needs to be big enough to get something done and let you learn from it. You can always expand on your effort later.

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