The Value of Iteration

Originally published in the Upstate Business Journal // May 11, 2017

Sometimes, it's okay to repeat yourself.

One of the most significant contributions of technology’s influence on business culture is the concept of iteration.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, it’s defined as “the repetition of a process or utterance; repetition of a mathematical or computational procedure applied to the result of a previous application, typically as a means of obtaining successively closer approximations to the solution of a problem.”

Historically, if you can use such a word in reference to technology, iteration has been part of programming and software development vernacular. Since the early days of computing, the interface of hardware and software has always been complex. Too complex, in fact, to allow for fully formed, comprehensive solutions to make it to market with traditional approaches to product development. The moment that software caught up with hardware capabilities, hardware development would make another leap and software would then have to adapt. The pace was (and continues to be) so quick and the variables so vast, that no person (or team of people) could wrap their arms around all of it. The concept of iteration in development wasn’t a lofty theory that was deemed to be worthwhile and then followed. It was born out of necessity in a rapidly developing new frontier. Iteration was a response to on the ground realities in tech circles, and it’s still the modus operandi today.

But it’s no longer limited to those tech circles. Its counterintuitive value increasingly influences industries, markets, and disciplines outside of tech.

The concept is a simple one and it makes sense when you think about it.

A common-sense approach to a complex world

Admittedly, there are some oversimplifications here for the sake of brevity.

In the last century, an ever-increasing population, the ballooning scale of business, the rapid pace of change, the sophistication of technological advancements, and the vastness of available information has combined to form a complex world. It’s a world that has made it difficult, if not impossible, to develop anything that can comprehensively navigate these factors and go to market in a fully realized state. That’s part of why we experience so many business failures, obsolete solutions, product recalls, and marketing/PR missteps.

If, once upon a time, a solution (or product) was conceptualized and developed in a vacuum devoid of user-input, it would probably still survive. Even if wasn’t ideal, that wouldn’t necessarily cause its demise, because it was the only game in town. For the most part, that’s no longer true. The “luxury” of isolation, of markets cornered by geography, of less competition (because there were fewer people) is gone.

That means, for instance, that if you are going to develop a new product or even a new business altogether, you run a great risk if you use the majority of your resources getting ready to go to market. People may not want what you are offering or they may already have something that is similar enough that they don’t feel the need to replace what they have. There are so many choices and alternatives.

Those who practice iteration often use the term “minimum viable product,” aka “MVP,” to describe something that is meant to satisfy a need in the market with the intention of constantly improving based on user feedback. This allows you to conserve some of your resources for the future iterations, and it provides you with vital user and consumer input that will help you proactively address the reasons why some people are not opting for what you are offering.

The enemy of iteration is perfectionism

The most significant reason why the practice of iteration is not adopted is perfectionism, the creeping doubt that something is not perfect or close enough to perfection. While the opposite of this, carelessness, can be just as detrimental, it’s more often the case that the desire for something to be just right causes delays and utilizes additional resources all while potentially being off the mark altogether.

This makes sense, really. Not so long ago, when print and unidirectional outlets such as radio and TV dominated, communication was largely limited by cycles. Quick changes and quick adaptations weren’t possible. Once it went to print, that was it. You had to wait for the next cycle. Print is an especially perfectionistic mode of communication, one that doesn’t allow for the type of iteration we are talking about (which is partly why traditional media outlets have had such a challenging time adapting to the world of digital).

But it’s not just those in print media who struggle with this. Product developers, marketing managers, operation managers, and even aspiring entrepreneurs are all tempted by the desire to get it 100 percent right before allowing something to go to market or even be seen by their potential target audience.

This is ultimately to the detriment of what they are trying to achieve. It’s not that things should be rushed or performed with a lack of expertise or excellence. But those things, if not kept in their proper place, will prevent a product or solution from reaching its potential.

The process of iteration allows for unknowns to be discovered, for potentially critical flaws to be addressed, and for real-life usefulness to be created and sustained.