What is the deal with working in short iterations?

Whether it is lean, six sigma, scrum, agile or appreciative inquiry every change management theory has a strong focus on short iterations as the most effective way forward. Why is this the case?

Since the world is complex it is nearly impossible to plan more than a couple of weeks ahead. A lot can happen in a month or year that will make your analysis and detailed requirements in need of adjustment or even obsolete. So why not try to work towards goals that are on a shorter time horizon?

In order to make short cycles work for your complex projects you need to be clear about what your minimum viable product is and build on that minimum viable product in next iterations. I will get into how to identify the minimum viable product in later blogs. You decide on what you want to accomplish in each iteration. This way you reduce surprises in each iteration, while staying flexible enough to deal with future changes.

If anything is certain, it is that change is certain. The world we are planning for today will not exist in this form tomorrow- Phil Crosby

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Long cycles match our idea of a complex reality

The short cycle mostly feels counterintuitive and gets a lot of resistance because we know the future is uncertain and likely to change? Both you and your stakeholders will run 'What if -scenarios' in your head. They will ask you questions based on their own assumptions about future changes. The only way to counter this and deliver value is to focus on the future you can influence best (the very near future). You will find that changing from long term planning to short term delivering will be hard for both you and your stakeholders. 

Just imagine you are starting a new project. The purpose of this project is to implement a new product. This new product will lead to changes in just about every process and system involved. This will be huge. You start to work out the impact on other systems and processes and you start the requirement process for your new product. This proves to be hard, because there are many factors involved. But after rigorous preparation you and your team feel like you have a good and comprehensive plan. It will take about a year and a half to finish it all, provided that nothing changes in the meantime. 

I think we all know what will happen. Things will change, with all kinds of consequences for the product, your team and your customer satisfaction. So why is it so hard to stop doing our work like this? Because it feels like we are doing everything we can to deliver. We are forgetting nothing, thinking about everything. If the customer and the world would stop demanding change it would work. In an unchanging world this would work well, but unfortunately we do not live in such a world. I invite you to lead by example and start working in short iterations.

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn- Benjamin Franklin

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The advantages of short cycles

Short cycles will make life easier in a complex world because:

  • It is easier to estimate needed budget and capacity for two weeks ahead than for two months or a year. 
  • When something changes you only need to adjust a small part of your prepared analysis and requirements instead of everything.
  • It is easier to learn from events two weeks ago than remember (small) events a year ago.
  • It is easier to see dependencies and connections between three to ten items and between ten or a hundred items. Shortening the timeframe will ensure a smaller scope.
  • People feel more motivated delivering something every two or three weeks instead of every three months or once a year.
  • It is easier to focus on your tasks when there are fewer tasks.
  • It is also easier to collaborate with other people when you only have a limited number of tasks and therefore a limited amount of complexity.

Working in short iterations is not about ignoring problems ahead. It is about dealing with these problems when they start to matter for your project. This will free you up to deal with each challenge and problem in a due time and keep yourself focused on what matters most: delivering value.

PDCA and standardization


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