What is Iterative, Incremental Delivery? The Hunt for the Perfect Example

​ Iterative, incremental delivery is critical to a successful Agile team. Without it, Agile is really just window dressing.

What is iterative, incremental delivery?

Iterative means that a team delivers work frequently rather than all at once. Incremental means that they deliver it in small packets of end-to-end functionality.

Here are five examples that attempt to illustrate the concept of iterative, incremental delivery in a single image. No example is perfect. Let me know what you think in the comments and if you have another way to explain these concepts.

The mile-long peanut butter and jelly sandwich

One way to describe iterative, incremental delivery is to imagine a team whose goal is to deliver a mine-long peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

A team using a more traditional methodology, like waterfall, might try to deliver the sandwich in one very large deliverable. They would approach the work with the assumption that they would deliver the whole sandwich at once. They might break up the job by using separate teams to focus on making the bread, jelly, peanut butter, and assembly.

A team using incremental, iterative delivery would supply the sandwich in smaller “bites.” The team would all work together to deliver each bite.

Is this a good example?

The strength of this example is that it nicely demonstrates how work is “cut” differently with an iterative, incremental approach. The weakness of this example is that it is impractical. When have YOU ever had to deliver a mile-long peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

A software development lifecycle perspective

Another way to discuss iterative, incremental delivery is to look at it from the software development life cycle (SDLC) perspective. The diagram below shows the SDLC for a typical waterfall approach compared to Agile product development. As you can see, Agile teams might perform all of the standard steps in the SDLC, but they might do this work in smaller pieces.

Is this a good example?

The strength of this example is that it speaks well to folks who are involved in software development. Its weakness is that this example may not translate well to teams who are not supporting a software-based product, and it does not fully address the concept of incremental delivery or that the work must be fully usable and potentially releasable.

The hexagon

Another way to discuss iterative, incremental delivery is to generalize the product by depicting it as a simple hexagon. The image below shows an individual trying to deliver a hexagon in one deliverable. The second part of the image shows an individual using incremental delivery to deliver a hexagon. Each of the smaller deliveries is a complete, usable hexagon.

Is this a good example?

The strength of this example is that it is easy to understand, and it clearly demonstrates the concept of delivering value in smaller pieces. It also speaks to the idea of providing end-to-end functionality (because the deliveries are small hexagons). The weakness of this example is that some individuals may not understand the message of the small hexagons being end-to-end deliveries because of how they are stacked in the image.

Web Form

I often use this explanation in my classes because it is similar to an actual product that I have worked on with an Agile team. This real-world example compares a team delivering value using an iterative, incremental approach to a team using a traditional method. The goal in this example is to produce an online application form.

Is this a good example?

The strengths of this example are that it is realistic, and it shows how work that solves a real business problem can be cut differently to allow iterative, incremental delivery. Because we have all used online forms at one point or another, even those not familiar with software development, can understand the value of developing them this way.

The famous car example

This is one of my favorite examples because it clearly shows how Agile frameworks deliver work differently than waterfall frameworks. In this example, the goal is to deliver transportation to the customer. In a traditional approach, the team doesn’t deliver anything to the customer until they build a car. However, using an iterative, incremental process, the customer receives value along the way to developing a car.

Is this a good example?

The strengths of this example are that it is easily understandable and really “drives” home the idea that the product the team delivers must be completely done and usable. Critics have pointed out that the weaknesses of this analog is that the product is not consistent, that a skateboard is not part of the same industry as a car. Additionally, the example is not exactly realistic (although it is much more realistic than a mile-long peanut butter and jelly sandwich).


The concept of iterative, incremental delivery is central to an Agile team’s success, and it is one of the hardest to implement. Simple examples are often helpful for explaining complex ideas, and we’ve examined five here that are commonly used to illustrate interactive and incremental delivery. Do any of them hit the mark? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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