What's the difference between incremental and iterative development?

Examples of agile approaches to problem solving.

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Leaning Scrum and agile concepts can be a bit overwhelming at first. There are so many new ideas and terminology. You may be wondering:

Are incremental and iterative approaches different? Which do I need?

As we answer those questions, we’ll see how they’re different and work together. This article will cover three essential topics to help you.

Sometimes you just have questions about key Scrum terms. Download the Scrum terminology cheat sheet.

Defining incremental and iterative approaches.

Let’s explore two terms you will hear around Scrum. Iterative and incremental. They have a lot of similarities, but there are also some key differences. 

Incremental and iterative both describe how we deliver value throughout a project. We’ll look at the definition of each and consider how they apply when practicing Scrum.


In Scrum, the term “increment” usually refers to the completed work delivered at the end of a sprint, and it is a finished piece of the work that could be released to the customer and provide some kind of value.

Delivering one complete piece at a time is core to an incremental approach. This could be providing a set of self-contained features each sprint. Or it could be delivering completed design assets or finished elements of a marketing campaign. The whole product isn’t complete, but this piece is.

Whatever the team releases, you could take it and use it. You may not want to yet because other completed pieces are missing, but it is complete in itself. Potentially releasable doesn’t mean you have to release it. It just means you could.


Where an incremental approach delivers finished work in pieces, an iterative approach delivers unfinished work as a whole. It’s all there, but it’s not yet developed. Think of a low-fidelity prototype for an app. You could draw it on a piece of paper and can see the whole screen with all the features. None of them are complete, but a user can interact with them and provide helpful feedback on how to develop each piece in the future.

Another example could be releasing an MVP (minimum viable product) of a marketing campaign to see how people respond. Based on the audience’s behavior, a product owner will prioritize which aspects of the campaign to build out more and which to cut.

Taking an iterative approach means delivering work as a whole to get feedback and then progressively bringing the whole to greater completion.

Examples of how to apply each approach.

Here is a common illustration I find helpful in understanding the difference between iterative and incremental and leads nicely into how we decide which to use.

A couple of observations to highlight from this example:

  • An Iterative approach works well when you have a rough idea of the outcome but intend to refine it over time.
  • An incremental-only approach is best when you have a very clear vision of what you are creating.
  • A combined incremental and iterative development approach brings together the best of both worlds. 

How to choose what’s right for your team?

Consider the strengths of each approach again:

  • An incremental approach (delivering in completed pieces) is good when the vision is clear. You know what you’re aiming for and the parts needed to get there.
  • An iterative approach (delivering the whole and refining) is good when the vision isn’t defined in detail, and you really want the feedback as you refine it.

Agile and Scrum can be implemented with either an incremental or iterative approach and is best when you use a blend of both. It’s iterative because you don’t know if it’s right until the customer sees it and believes it. It’s incremental because teams deliver completed work that’s only valuable to our customers when it’s out in the wild. 

While your team may lean more strongly to one or the other, it’s best to allow the nature of the product to drive your approach. Are you building something you already have a clear picture of? Or do you just have a problem to solve, and you’re iteratively discovering how it might be solved?

Did you know Scrum applies to more than just developing code?

When you understand the essentials of Scrum and the nuance of how to apply it, you can use it to level up aspects of everyday life.

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There are a lot of new terms when learning the Scrum essentials, and I hope this post helped clear up some of the vocabulary.

Action Plan

If you want to learn more about Scrum in general, check out my What is Scrum? A Guide for Everyday People to Learn Scrum. If you have more questions, please feel free to reach out on LinkedIn.

Still not sure about your next step with Scrum? I offer a couple of free coaching sessions each month. You can signup for a free 1-hour coaching session, and we can work together to identify a good next step for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Scrum?

What is the definition of scrum?

Scrum is founded on three essential pillars leading teams to ask the following questions:

  1. How does this make things more visible? (Transparency)
  2. Where does this create space to evaluate? (Inspection)
  3. When does this encourage growth? (Adaptation)

Further explore the definition of scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Is Scrum hard to learn?

This is because Scrum’s simplicity makes learning easy, but Scrum truly changes how you work, and that adjustment can be difficult. It changes power dynamics and expectations within the team and between the team and the rest of the organization.

You can explore further is Scrum hard to learn, along with the pros and cons of Scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

When did Scrum start?

Scrum was initially used as a term related to project management in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in their paper “New New Product Development Game” In the Harvard Business Review. The first recorded Scrum project came a little later in 1993 from Jeff Sutherland.

You can learn more about Scrum’s backstory. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What do all the scrum words mean?

Learning Scrum for the first time can be overwhelming. There are a lot of new terms and concepts in Scrum. I’ve listed the most common terms in a Scrum glossary.

Scrum design

What are the three pillars of Scrum?

Scrum is founded on three essential pillars, and each leads the team to ask a critical question.

  1. Transparency. How does this make things more visible?
  2. Inspection. Where does this create space to evaluate?
  3. Adaptation. When does this encourage growth?

Learn how to apply the three pillars of Scrum and then explore the most common terms in a Scrum glossary.

What are the values of Scrum?

There are five values critical to the practice of Scrum: commitment, courage, focus, openness, and respect.

  1. Commit to achieving the goals of the Scrum Team.
  2. Courage to do the right thing and work on challenging problems.
  3. Focus on the Sprint's work and the Scrum Team's goals.
  4. Open about all the work and the challenges with performing the work.
  5. Respect each other to be capable, independent people

Learn how to align Scrum values with your organization and then explore the most common terms in a Scrum glossary.

What is the sprint goal in scrum?

The sprint goal encapsulates the product owner’s vision into a concrete statement for the development team to measure the sprint against. The sprint goal provides a theme for the sprint’s work helping the team see how all the parts come together. 

Learn more about the role of the sprint goal in scrum and explore the essential Scrum glossary.

How to use Scrum

Why use Scrum?

It forces clarity and prioritization, which provides the focus necessary for teams to be effective. Scrum embraces complexity and change by keeping many things simple and iteratively evaluating and adapting. 

You can learn more about why to use Scrum and three challenges Scrum solves. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

When does Scrum not work well?

Scrum isn’t always the best option for teams. Scrum can fail when there is a substantial mismatch between organizational culture and the Scrum values. It also depends on the nature of the work you do. If you work if very linear, predictable and tightly defined, you may not experience many benefits Scrum provides.

Find out more about aligning your organizational values with Scrum or how Scrum might fit in your context. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

How do I know when to use Scrum?

Scrum functions at its best when you have a dedicated team focused on developing a singular product. Its agility shines when there are time constraints combined with uncertainty. 

Explore the pros and cons of Scrum along with expectations vs. realities with Scrum. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Learning to apply Scrum

How to choose between Scrum and Kanban?

Important factors include your team size and the type of work you do. Kanban is very process-oriented, so you should consider how defined, static, or long your process is? 

You can explore Scrum and other agile approaches. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

How does scrum help an organization?

Scrum forces clarity and prioritization, which are critical to organizational effectiveness. It provides a competitive edge by allowing teams to adapt as the market or priorities change. Teams operate more effectively because Scrum combines empowerment of the team members with alignment to top priorities.

Learn more about scrum’s impact on organizational culture. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

Is scrum a methodology or a framework?

Scrum is more of a framework than a methodology, and it helps teams adhere to Agile principles and get stuff done. Scrum provides basic rules but doesn’t prescribe how to do the work. It provides principles, values, rules, and some core structure but still leaves a lot undefined.

Learn more about scrum as a framework. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

What’s the difference between scrum and agile?

When people say “agile,” they usually refer to it as a mindset. Scrum is a framework for how to organize people and work in an agile way. If you’re practicing Scrum, you’re working in an Agile way.

Learn more about the relationship between scrum and agile. Then browse the most common terms in a Scrum glossary and learn what is Scrum.

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