The Knewton Blog

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The Beauty of Iterations

Posted in Knerds on January 11, 2012 by

Those who work in technology will be familiar with the term, “agile development.” Formally introduced in 2001 through the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, “agile development” is a method that promotes an iterative, flexible, and “time-boxed” approach to product development (as opposed to “waterfall development” which is traditionally associated with a slower and more bureaucratic approach). According to those who created the methodology, the result of embracing agile development is an emphasis on rapid execution as well as collaboration, self-organization, and personal responsibility.

Iterations, one or two or three week cycles, are the product of this methodology. For several years now, two-week iterations have functioned as the backbone of our work here at Knewton. Here’s why they work for us:

1. Our iterations sync everyone in the company.

While we work hard to keep everyone in the company updated through brownbag lunches and presentations, functioning under the same scheduling framework helps us understand each other better and get in the same mindset. Iterations serve this purpose. Here at Knewton, you’ll hear people say things like, “I have 2 days on my iteration to finish the Q/A” or “I have 3.5 days to get that rev done.” Within the context of iterations, this sort of communication works well; it lets others know the priority of a given item of work within someone’s overall schedule, when the work will be done, how long it will take, etc.

The result? Faster execution, more informed decisions, better collaboration, and less time spent on unnecessary emails and meetings. After all, speed is important at any start-up, and part of what makes speed possible is exceptional trust and communication.

2. Iterations are long enough.

2 weeks or 10 business days is enough time to get some significant work done so that meetings to discuss the previous iteration and plan the next one are actually productive and are based on real work — not just plans to get work done.

3. Iterations are short enough that everyone can feel the “pulse.”

At the same time, iterations are short enough so that we can address problems quickly and nip them in the bud. Iterations, in other words, allow us to adjust quickly and respond to changes in the road-plan while maintaining a sense of order and accountability.

4. Iterations allow for more autonomy and deeper engagement.

At Knewton, we don’t micro-manage each other. While we might have stand-ups regularly (meetings so short we don’t need to sit down), it’s not so much to micro-manage our use of time but rather, to collaborate, reflect on process and touch base. While our work is intense, iteration scheduling makes us feel in control, so that we know what to expect in at least 10-day cycles. We can plan ahead, things don’t feel arbitrary, and we get the feeling that our colleagues respect our time.

This sense of autonomy is important–it promotes accountability (the idea that you’re personally responsible for meeting certain deadlines) and transparency (clarity about what’s going on where) which ultimately boosts engagement and motivation because we can see precisely and tangibly how our individual efforts are paying off.