Kermit Kordell Blog

Iterative problem solving.

When it comes to solving problems, there are two main lines of thoughts:

  • Plan, plan, do
  • Do, learn (repeat)

I’ve found during my life experience that the second method is almost always the best one. It arrives at the solution quicker, and it solves the problem better.

In this post, I’ll explore why that is – how iterative problem solving actually works.

Solving math problems iteratively

During homework one day when I was a kid, I discovered that I could more easily solve my math problems by just testing and seeing what would happen. Even if I had no idea what would happen, I simply started jotting down a solution – with no idea as to whether it would hold or not.

What I discovered was that the problem of “just trying something” would yield a solution far quicker than thinking ahead.

I proudly announced my discovery to my teacher. I don’t know if she really understood what I was talking about, but she applauded me nevertheless, encouraging me to keep doing what I did.

This approach to problem solving has stuck with me ever since. Now, I’m at a point where I will explore the mechanisms behind this type of problem solving to understand when and where it can be applied. In order to do that, we have to look at the mechanisms that makes this work.

How iterative problem solving works

In the situations where iterative learning works, what happens is as follows:

You have no clue what the solution is, but you do have some (far from correct) ideas or guesses or assumptions.

So based on these ideas/guesses/assumptions, you test a quick and dirty solution. What you arrive at is probably very wrong, but you will have gained something immensely valuable: Learning.

By testing your ideas, guesses and assumptions very quickly, you will see the actual results they yield. This is feedback, which gives you learning.

This, during the process of trying and learning, the amount of additional learning you will have gained will probably be far more than what you would have concluded/learned if you tried to figure out the “correct” solution without getting your hands dirty to actually try immediately.

Using those new learnings, you will have revised your guesses, assumptions and ideas, and you can try again. This time, from a higher level of understanding.

By repeating this process, you will continuously increase your learning until you are at a point where your assumptions, guesses and ideas are correct enough to bring you to the solution.

A formalized iterative learning process

Actually, learning IS making an assumption (read: guess) based on what you do know, then testing those assumptions to see if they hold.

So in your original “try and learn” approach, you might have tried to solve the problem by assuming (read: guessing) three things: Assumption 1, Assumption 2 and Assumption 3 (A1, A2 and A3).

If the assumptions produce the correct answer, great! You have verified that all three assumptions are correct.

If you get the wrong result, at least one of the above assumptions must be wrong. This, in itself, is valuable knowledge, because it presents you with two choices:

  • If you have other ideas (for example A4 and A5) which you think are likely to produce the correct answer, simply try to solve a problem again using these.
  • If you don’t have any more ideas, or if you have too many possible ideas to test, then you might want to drill down to A1-A3 to draw additional learnings about why they failed.

Number 1 is easy: Simply repeat the process.

Number 2 will create a “recursive iterative learning” cycle.

Recursive iterative learning

Pick one of your original assumptions to drill deeper into, for example A1.

Formulate sub-assumptions that underlie A1. For example, you might have some ideas (assumptions) about why A1 can’t be correct: Let’s call these A1.1, A1.2 and A1.3.

Pick one of these sub-assumptions, preferably one that would lead to some “chain reactions” in terms of your original solution (i.e. if any of them are correct, then it would also eliminate or strengthen some of your other assumptions). Then test it.

If it succeeds, great: You have learned something new. This new learning will have consequences for at least A1 (striking it from your list of possibly correct assumptions), and possibly more.

If it fails, repeat the process by testing the other assumptions in this level (A1.2, A1.3 and so on), or create new sub-sub-assumptions and test the sub-sub-assumptions (for example A1.1.1, A1.1.2 and so on). Do this until you can draw a definitive learning, and go back in your recursive learning chain and let all the recursive learnings fall into place.

You have now drawn a set of learnings from your original guess. From these new set of learnings, you can make new assumptions that are closer to the truth, test them, and repeat the process. With each iteration, you will come closer to the truth until you finally arrive at it.

What it looks like in real life

In reality, nobody (I hope..?) thinks like the above. Instead, the process happens unconsciously when we just “try something”.

For example, let’s take the math problem I was trying to solve as a kid described above. Here’s what actually happened:

I was sitting and looking at the problem, with no clue as to how I was supposed to solve it.

So instead of sitting there, stuck in my own thoughts, I decided to simply jot something down. I started by drawing a character, and then the next character. Before I started the process of jotting down each character, I had no idea which character would actually be “jotted down”. Instead, the actual character came to me as I started jotting.

A couple of times, I realized that the character or formula I jotted down didn’t make sense (=> my first iterative learning, happening organically). So I erased, and tried again (using the learning from the previous step to try something new, i.e. realizing that A1 didn’t work and trying A2 instead).

At some point, I thought I had arrived at the correct solution (using A2). But I realized everything I had done had been garbage, because it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it. I started wondering why the heck it didn’t work. I had an idea (A1.1). So I started experimenting at the side trying to answer the question in my mind as to why my original solution didn’t work (testing A1.1). Suddenly, I got an interesting result (proven A1.1) which gave me a new idea (A3) which I used when starting with the original question from scratch (testing A3), which arrived at the correct conclusion.

In reality, the process is even messier than this. But the actual process is the same, only more complicated (more branches, more assumptions and sub-assumptions), not different.

A couple of scenarios in which you can apply iterative learning

So where can you actually apply “iterative learning”? Well, as it turns out, in a lot of places:

Programming: Trying a solution and seeing where it leads you, drawing learnings from that destination and trying again ( Agile Software Development )

Starting companies:  Start from where you are, using the knowledge you have, make a quick and dirty roadmap, start the journey, and learn and adjust as you go ( Lean Startup ).

Building rockets: Build a rocket as quickly as you can, using what you know (A1, A2 etc.). When the rocket crashes , analyze why it crashed, draw a new conclusion (A1.1), make a new assumption (A3) and build another one. ( Elon Musk’s methodology as described in this biography )

And probably much more 🙂

Summary of iterative learning

So in summary, when you have a problem, even though you know that you don’t know the answer, simply assume things and get started. Then learn from the results you get, and start again with the higher level of knowledge you have. And so on, until you have ruled out all but the correct solution.

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Kermit Kordell

One response to “Iterative Problem Solving”

Based on a conversation with a friend, I’ll add the following points to the post:

You can see the solution to a problem as a tree structure where each node is a way down towards the solution (hopefully) – but you don’t know before testing which way down will produce the results you are hoping for.

The road you choose to take is based on your assumptions (A1, A2, …). You always have a list of active assumptions (probably just intuitively, not explicitly), and a list of falsified assumptions (which may well be forgotten, not held in memory). The falsified ones are falsified because you tried a road down from a node based on some assumptions you had made, and when the road failed to produce the results you expected you assumed that your assumption was wrong. You then either create sub-assumptions (A1.1, …) to learn why A1 didn’t work, or you simply tried another node based on new/revised assumptions.

The fastest way to find the goal is NOT to try to build the entire tree or all assumptions at once, but to simply build/refine both the tree and your assumptions as you go. Make a very quick “best guess” based on your current knowledge and intuition and start executing any node that fits reasonably well. As described in the blog post, this makes you learn quickly and find the correct assumptions (and thereby the correct road – or even the opposite way around) quickly.

The mistake people make is that they try to draw a complete tree stucture before even trying to execute a single node. What happens then is that either they never finish (hence never start executing and thus never reach the goal, because drawing the “perfect” tree is very time consuming or even impossible), or if they finish they have to revise the entire tree after the first attempt at execution since the first things they will learn will invalidate their entire tree since reality is almost always different than you imagined.

I also think that another very important factor for success (aside from testing early) is: have the courage to make definitive conclusions even based on limited proof. In other words, dare to strike nodes that don’t work quickly, and dare to draw up new nodes that you believe in early.

I made the mistake for a long time in my life that I was too careful about making definitive conclusions. Instead, held too many nodes open for too long, thinking things such as “perhaps what I did didn’t work because I didn’t do it well enough / need more training / missed a detail that will make it work / …”. Rather than simply “It didn’t work, it probably doesn’t work, I’m going to try something else”.

The result of such reasoning is that progress will halt. In reality, there are so many nodes, and so many of them leading to the goal even though they are completely different and even contradict each other, than there is no “perfect way” – there are just multitudes of “good enough” ways. If you are slow with “closing off” ways that didn’t work, you will also be slow to find a way that works. The fastest way to find a way that works is to test many ways quickly rather than to try to “prove with high significance” that a way doesn’t work before you move on.

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Understanding the iterative process: 5 steps to success.

Updated on February 19, 2024 by Luke Henderson

Published on August 10, 2022 by Luke Henderson

what is iterative problem solving

Whether you are starting your project management career or are a seasoned pro, it is essential to  understand the iterative process . This process is commonly used in software development but can be applied to any project – sometimes even a personal one.

What does the iterative process mean? (a.k.a. iterative process definition)

An iterative process is an approach to problem-solving that involves breaking down a significant problem into smaller, more manageable pieces. Each piece is then worked on separately, combining and iterating the results to form a final solution.

This article will take a closer look at the iterative process and how one can use it to improve your  project management skills .

iterative process

How to Implement the Iterative Process

You need to take the following five key steps to implement the iterative process.

It all starts with a plan. It would help if you had a clear idea of what you want to achieve with your project. What are your goals? What are your objectives?

You also need to consider the resources required to complete the project, including time, money, and workforce.

And finally, you need to decide on the timeline for the project. How long do you have to complete the project? What are the  milestones  that you need to reach?

Knowing the correct answers to these questions will allow you to understand what resources you’re working with at the various stages of the project.

After you’ve planned the project, it’s time to start designing it. This is where you’ll start putting your ideas down on paper (or in a digital format).

You’ll need to think about the different components of the project and how they’ll fit together. This includes things like the user interface, the database, and the code.

And you’ll also need to consider the different steps users will take when interacting with your project. What will they see? What will they do?

3. Implement.

Once you’ve designed the project, it’s time to implement it. This is where you’ll start coding (or building) the project.

You’ll need to write (or build) the code for the project’s different components. And you’ll also need to put everything together so that it works as a cohesive whole.

After implementing the project, it’s time to start testing it. This is where you’ll put the project through its paces to ensure it works as intended.

You’ll need to test all of the different components of the project. And you’ll also need to test the project as a whole.

5. Evaluate and Review.

After you’ve tested the project, it’s time to evaluate and review it. This is where you’ll take a step back and look at the project.

What worked well? What didn’t work well? What could be improved?

And based on your evaluation, you can decide whether or not to continue with the project. You can move on to the next iteration if everything goes well. But if some areas need improvement, you can make the necessary changes.

The power of iterative design and process

An iterative process is a cycle of repeated steps until a desired goal or result is achieved. In design, iteration is often used to explore multiple solutions to a problem and gradually refine them based on feedback from users or other stakeholders.

One of the benefits of using an iterative process model is that it allows for course corrections along the way. This can be especially helpful when working on complex issues where problems are challenging to anticipate upfront.

Iterative processes are also well suited for  Agile development  environments where requirements may change over time. Revisiting and revising designs regularly makes accommodating new insights or feedback easier.

If you’re new to using an iterative process, there are a few basics to remember. First, starting with a clear understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve is essential. Once you have a good sense of the problem, you can begin exploring potential solutions.

As you explore different solutions, it’s helpful to keep track of the pros and cons of each one. This will make it easier to compare and contrast different approaches and eventually choose the best option.

Once you’ve selected a solution, it’s time to implement it. This is where the iterative process model comes in handy, as you can make small changes and test them out before making more significant changes.

Through this complete cycle, you can gradually improve your solution until it meets your needs. Regarding the iterative model, the key is to be patient and flexible, as the best solutions often come from unexpected places.

How does the Agile methodology relate to the iterative process?

The Agile workflow  is a popular methodology that many developers follow. It’s similar to the iterative process in that it focuses on delivering working software in short cycles, usually two to four weeks. The main difference is that Agile focuses more on customer feedback and  collaboration , while the iterative process focuses more on the technical aspects of development.

Agile Lifecycle

The main benefits of using an Agile workflow are that it helps to ensure that features are being built that customers want, and it helps to avoid scope creep, which happens when stakeholders change key requirements. However, long-term projects might get incremental deliveries, which is only sometimes ideal.

The main benefits of using the iterative process are that it helps to ensure that the software is of high quality and that it’s easy to track progress. The main downside of the iterative process is that it can be time-consuming since each iteration must be planned.

An Agile team can use the iterative process to build software incrementally. And a team that follows the iterative process can use Agile techniques to get customer feedback and avoid scope creep.

So, while there are some differences between Agile and iterative processes, they are not mutually exclusive. Many teams use both approaches to build software incrementally.

Examples of the iterative process in various industries

Let’s now consider multiple industries that can use the iterative process.

Engineering

Engineering is one of the most common fields to use the iterative process. For example, engineers will often build a small prototype when building a structure, say a bridge. They will then test the prototype to see if it can support the weight of the traffic crossing the bridge. If the prototype fails, they will make changes and try again. This process is repeated until the engineers are confident that the final product can support the required load.

Web Development

Web development is another field where the iterative design process can be beneficial. Development teams often start with a basic site version when building a website . They will then add features and make changes based on feedback from users. This process is repeated until the site is complete.

Product Development

The iterative process can also be used in product development. When developing a new product, companies will often start with a prototype. They will then test the prototype with potential customers. Based on feedback from these tests, they will make changes to the design and try again. This process is repeated until the company is confident that the final product will be successful.

The iterative design process also works if someone else has already built a product you want to improve. In this case, you can use the iterative process to make incremental improvements. For example, let’s say you are building a word unscrambler. You could take a product someone has already created and start with that as the basic idea. You could test your new product with different words and see how well it works. Based on this feedback, you could make changes to the algorithm and try again. This iterative approach is repeated until the word unscrambler is as good as it can be.

This is similar to what  Unscrambled Words  have done on their site. With the premise that anyone that likes playing games such as Text Twist, Scrabble, and Words With Friends, will be able to enjoy their take on word unscrambling, the site gives a brief description of why you should go for their unscrambler over their competitors. They do this by saying that their algorithm uses the official tournament dictionaries as the foundation for their word choices. This gives you the right words when using this site.

From an iterative design process point of view, the word unscrambler is an excellent example of how a process can be improved in relation to an existing product. By starting with a basic algorithm and then making incremental improvements, the team created a word unscrambler that is better at what it does when compared to its competitors.

The  iterative process can also be used in marketing. For example, when companies plan to hire a new link building agency or a new vendor, they often start with a small test campaign. They will then use the feedback from this test market to make changes to their marketing strategy . This process is repeated until the product is launched in all markets.

As opposed to just going all out and finalizing an agency based on conversations and case studies, the iterative process allows companies to ensure that the vendor they are going for will help them succeed. It is because you can always change the agency or vendor based on the performance of your test campaigns. 

The iterative process can also be used in education. Educators often start with a basic outline when developing a new curriculum. They will then test the curriculum with their students, noting what works well and what doesn’t. Based on feedback from these tests, they will make changes to the curriculum and try again. This process is repeated until the educators are confident that the final product will be successful.

Resume creation tools

The iterative process can also be used when  creating a resume . When developing a new resume , one can start with a basic template. The person can then add information and make changes based on feedback from potential employers. This process is repeated until the candidate has a final product that makes them confident and will help them get the desired job.

One such tool that can be used in this situation is the  Preschool Teacher Resume  tool, which helps with resume writing for those in the preschool education field. You fill out a form with relevant experience and skills, and the tool generates a resume template. You can then get back to this tool and update your resume as you gain more knowledge about what works (and what doesn’t).

CV Maker

By starting with a basic template and making changes based on feedback, you can create a resume that will help you get the job you want.

To further enhance the effectiveness of your resume, particularly in navigating the complexities of modern job application processes, consider utilizing an ATS resume template . Such templates are specifically designed to ensure compatibility with Applicant Tracking Systems, thereby maximizing your visibility to potential employers.

People search

The working of the iterative process discussed above can be seen in tools that help with people searches. Here, the user enters information about the person they are looking for, and the tool generates a list of potential matches. Users can refine their search by adding more information or making changes to the initial search criteria.

One such tool is  Truthfinder , which helps find someone fast. You can find detailed records about a person using a name, phone number, or address. You can then refine your search by adding more information.

truthfinder app home page

By starting with essential information and refining your search, you can quickly understand the critical information you need to enter to find the person you want. This also means that on the next iteration, you will have a better idea of what to search for, making the process even more efficient.

Scrum projects

Following the  Scrum principles , software development also uses the iterative process. In Scrum, a product is developed in short cycles called sprints. Each sprint starts with a planning phase, where the team decides what features to work on. The team then works on implementing these features and tests them at the end of the sprint. Based on feedback from testing, the team makes changes and continues to the next sprint.

Scrum Principle

Psychology research

Finally, in psychology, the iterative process is often used in research. When conducting experiments, psychologists may start with a small number of subjects and then gradually increase the sample size. This allows them to test their hypotheses and ensure their results are reliable.

Benefits of using the iterative process

Let’s consider some benefits of using the iterative process.

Flexibility and efficiency

Gone are the days when you would work on a project for months or even years without knowing whether it would be successful. With the iterative process, you can get feedback early and often, which means that you can make changes as needed. This makes the iterative process much more efficient and flexible than other methods.

Avoiding overwhelm

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when starting a large project. But by breaking the project down into smaller tasks, you can take things one step at a time and avoid feeling like you’re taking on too much.

Improved communication

The iterative process can also improve communication between team members. By getting feedback throughout the project, team members can stay on the same page and avoid misunderstandings.

Increased engagement

The iterative process can also increase engagement among team members. When team members see that their ideas are being implemented and start forming part of the project, they are more likely to be engaged.

Cost-effectiveness

The iterative process can also be cost-effective. By starting with a small-scale project, you can save money on a project that may not be successful.

With money being one of the resources often limited in project management (especially when an idea is untested), the iterative process can help you make the most of your given budget.

Reduced risk

Another benefit of the iterative process is that it can help to reduce risk. Risk management is an integral part of any project, and by  breaking down a project into smaller pieces , you can identify and manage risks more effectively.

When not to use the iterative process

While the iterative process is a great tool, it’s only right for some situations. Here are a few cases when you might want to avoid using the iterative process.

When time is of the essence

There may be better choices than the iterative process if you’re working on a project with a tight deadline. Each iteration takes time, and you may need more time on larger projects to complete all of the iterations.

When there is no room for error

The iterative process is all about testing and making changes based on feedback. But if there is no room for error in your project, the iterative process may not suit you.

When you’re working alone

The iterative approach relies on team input and feedback. So if you’re working on a project yourself, there may be better choices than the iterative process.

What’s the difference between iterative and incremental development?

The terms “iterative” and “incremental” are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle distinction between the two. Iterative development is a technique in which the development process is repeated multiple times, with each iteration building upon the previous one. Incremental development, however, breaks down the development process into smaller pieces, each adding functionality to the overall project.

Both iterative and incremental development share some common characteristics. They are both incremental (i.e., they add new functionality in small steps), they are both based on feedback loops (i.e., they allow for constant revision and refinement), and they are both flexible (i.e., they can accommodate changes in requirements).

However, there are some critical differences between the two approaches. Iterative development is typically used for more complex projects, while incremental development is more suited for more straightforward projects. Iterative development focuses more on the project’s overall architecture, while gradual development is more concerned with adding individual features and functionality to a project.

What is a non-iterative process?

The opposite of an iterative process is a non-iterative – traditionally known as a Waterfall process. In a Waterfall process, the development process is linear and proceeds sequentially from one stage to the next. There is no feedback loop, which means that once a decision is made, it cannot be changed. Waterfall processes are typically used for projects with well-defined requirements.

One of the main advantages of Waterfall processes is that they are relatively simple and easy to understand. They are also easy to document and track since each stage has a clearly defined start and end point.

However, Waterfall processes also have several disadvantages. One of the most significant drawbacks is that they need to allow for changes in requirements. Once the development process has started, any modifications to the conditions will require a complete restart. This can be both costly and time-consuming.

Another disadvantage of waterfall processes is that they can be inflexible. Since each stage of the process depends on completing the previous step, it can be challenging to make changes or adapt to new circumstances. This can lead to delays and frustration for both developers and clients.

The role of Kaizen in Continuous improvement in business

Kaizen, a Japanese word for “improvement” or “change for the better,” combines two words: Kai (改), meaning “change” or “to correct,” and Zen (善), meaning “good” or “better.”

When used in business, kaizen refers to activities that continuously improve all business functions, from manufacturing to management and from the CEO to the assembly line workers.

Part of Iterative Process, Kaizen Cycle

There are two critical components to kaizen: 1) focusing on continuous improvement and 2) involving everyone in the organization in the improvement process.

Continuous improvement

The core meaning of kaizen is a focus on continuous improvement. Every aspect of the business is always open to scrutiny and improvement. There is no such thing as “good enough” – there is always room for improvement. As such, performance analysis is a vital part of continuous improvement as it allows businesses to identify areas that need improvement and track the results of their improvement efforts.

Involving everyone

Another critical component of Kaizen is involving everyone in the organization in the improvement process. Improvement cannot be achieved if only a few people are working on it. Everyone must be committed to making minor improvements every day.

Kaizen is often associated with Lean Manufacturing or the Toyota Production System . However, it is essential to note that Kaizen is a philosophy or mindset that can be applied to any business area, not just manufacturing. It also happens that Kaizen and the iterative process are very compatible, so it is common to see Kaizen being used as part of an iterative development process.

An iterative process is an essential tool that one can use to manage the development of a product or service. It is a flexible process that allows for changes and adaptation as needed. The iterative process is also continuous, which means there is always room for improvement.

The iterative process has something to offer everyone, ranging from businesses specializing in software development to those in manufacturing. It’s a fundamental tool that can help organizations develop products and services more effectively.

With a better understanding of the iterative process, you’ll be able to apply it to your work and improve your product development skills.

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  • The Iterative Process: A Guide to Creating, Refining and Improving
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The iterative process is one of the most commonly used methods by business organizations looking forward to upgrading their business strategies and diversifying their product offerings. The purpose of this article is to explain in detail the concepts of an iterative process, the definition of the term, an easy-to-understand version of the iterative process model, the steps of the process, and the advantages of using the strategy.

The iterative process is creating, refining, and improving a project, initiative, or product. Business organizations that implement the use of the iterative model try to build, test, and review until they are entirely satisfied with the final outcome. The iterative process can be considered as a strategy of trial and error, which ultimately brings you one step ahead toward fulfilling your final targets. Iterative processes are very significant when devising lean methodologies and working as an Agile project manager. However, that's not all. Iterative methods can be useful for all business organizations and team members. Using this strategy, you can certainly advance your project and product design to the point where you are one hundred percent satisfied with the deliverable you have.

Iterative Process Definition

The term "iterative process" refers to an approach to research and development whereby the preferred outcome is achieved through a series of recurring cycles, taking into account the principles of trial and error. The process is systematic in nature and non-random. Each iterative cycle participates in a specific set of guidelines, allowing structural changes to be incorporated. In this way, it is possible to improve step by step and in a balanced way with respect to each previous cycle.

austin-distel-744oGeqpxPQ-unsplash

Iterative Process of a Lean Business Model

The roots of the iterative process are closely linked to the agile or lean business model. The agile/lean business model makes every effort to achieve seamless efficiency by cutting and avoiding all unnecessary and unproductive steps in the production cycle. Such activities are known as ‘waste’, and the lean business model strives to continuously avoid them. The iterative process is very useful when focusing on continuous improvement. The ultimate goal is to achieve the maximum possible productivity with the least reasonable amount of resources. The concept and strategy of a minimum viable product is also an interesting strategy in this regard.

The Benefits of using the iterative process

The iterative approach allows for flexibility in the product roadmap while introducing significant changes during the development process. This can help business organizations stay on track and make quick adjustments as they implement new additions and changes. The iterative approach often requires the participation of all team members, which can improve efficiency by promoting balanced workloads and collaboration among the team. The iterative approach promotes more meaningful opportunities for teamwork and collaboration. Instead of starting with a fixed plan and specifications (which can take a long time to develop), the team collaborates interactively and actively progresses through projects.

The process is very cost effective. Even if you intend to alter the course of your original project, it will only cost the amount of effort and time you initially invested in the project. It also offers the possibility of working simultaneously. Unlike non-iterative approaches, such as the waterfall method, the attributes of the iterative process are not dependent on or constrained by previous work. Team members can work simultaneously on various aspects of the project, potentially reducing the overall timeline.

Lower project risk is yet another core benefit of the process. In an iterative approach, potential risks are recognized and subsequently addressed in each iteration. Instead of addressing major risks at the beginning and end of the project, low-level risks are continuously addressed throughout the working cycle. 

It offers a higher degree of trustworthy and dependable user's product feedback . By presenting users with an iteration they can interact with or observe closely, they can better provide incremental input about what is effective or not practical for them. The iterative method enables business organizations to consistently and dependably enhance their existing products. Through each iteration cycle, teams can assess areas that require some improvement and apply the lessons they previously learned, resulting in each new iteration being ideally more enhanced than the previous one. By continually upgrading and enhancing the development process, teams can develop well-designed products and processes with ensured quality.

Another reason for the popularity of the iterative approach is its relatively low-risk profile. Teams typically tackle high-risk aspects of the product early on and refine the process over time, thus alleviating the chance of significant issues arising as the project nears its end. This approach enables companies to recognize and address risks in a timely fashion.

Understanding strategies to make innovative and creative products to capture the market is imperative.

marvin-meyer-SYTO3xs06fU-unsplash

The 5 steps of the iterative process

1. planning and requirements .

The iterative approach typically begins with a phase that is highly focused on rigorous planning and information gathering, where teams outline some of the preliminary requirements, such as important timelines and customer specifications. During this phase, they may also collect and maintain a record of relevant documents, while clearly establishing a project timeline for the first iteration cycle.

2. Analysis and design 

In the second phase, the focus is on project design and analysis, which involves a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the objectives, building database models and clearly establishing the technical requirements of the project. A detailed, step-by-step analysis of each component of the project can help develop test systems that fit the overall objectives. 

3. Implementation 

The next phase of the process is implementation, where the focus is on developing the functionality of the project. The goal is to meet the minimum requirements of the project and then make improvements to previous iterations, if appropriate, to produce something that can be tested and provide valuable information for the next phases of the process.

4. Testing 

The testing phase consists of gathering feedback on the offering. The team makes a rigorous effort to highlight areas where the project does not perform adequately or does not meet the required expectations. It is highly recommended to adopt methods such as surveys, focus groups, stakeholder presentations and beta testers to obtain primary feedback. Choosing testers strategically to ensure that the right information is obtained at the right time can improve the functionality and usefulness of the iterative process.

5. Evaluation and review

The last step is to conduct a thorough review and evaluation, in which the results of the previous steps are evaluated. If this is the first iteration, it is useful to compare the feedback and notes with the original project requirements you had previously decided upon. This will help you determine how to implement the improvements. Also, take the time to reflect on what was successful in the first iteration and build on it, as enhancing strengths can be just as valuable as correcting weaknesses.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does iterative mean in business.

In business, iterative means repeating a process with the goal of improvement and refinement. This approach is commonly used in product development, problem-solving, and decision-making, allowing for continual adjustment and adaptation based on feedback and results.

What is an iterative process example?

You might be surprised to realize that most product development is very iterative. Think of any personal technology you’ve ever purchased for yourself—there was likely a previous version before the one you bought, and maybe a version afterward, as well. Think of the development of mobile phones throughout the years, how speakers have gotten smaller and more portable over time, or even the way refrigerators from the same brands have changed to adapt to new family needs. All of these are iterative processes.

What is an iterative approach?

An iterative approach is a method of problem-solving or decision-making that involves repeating a series of steps in a cycle until the desired outcome is achieved. It is characterized by continuous improvement and adaptation based on feedback and results. This approach allows for flexible decision-making and quicker response to changing circumstances compared to a linear, one-time solution. Iterative methods are commonly used in product development, design thinking, project management, and many other fields.

What does iterative stand for?

It is a word derived from the Latin word "iterare," which means to repeat. In the context of problem-solving, decision-making, and product development, iterative refers to a repetitive process of improvement and adaptation.

To gain a deeper understanding of the Iterative process and other impactful techniques in product development and marketing, consider exploring resources available on Harvestr .

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  • The Idea Series

what is iterative problem solving

An Iterative Approach to Problem Solving, Part 1

By Brandon Gandy

On February 20, 2019

In The Problem Solver Series

I’ve always been a fairly methodical person. I believe it’s important to build a habit of breaking down things I tend to take for granted and examining their constituent parts, then creating systems around them to ensure consistent results. I mean, that’s the whole point of this problem solving series .

The path from finding a problem to finding its solution can sometimes be obscured by assumptions, vague wording, and misunderstandings. What follows is the first part of an iterative approach to clearing the path before you set out on it, so your journey to the solution is unobstructed and free from distraction.

Define the Problem

Often overlooked as the first step, or taken as a given, defining what problem you’re trying to solve before setting out to solve it can save you precious time and effort in the long run.

Before you set out to fix something, before you try to make changes, before you suggest a solution, you need to be certain that you understand exactly what it is you’re trying to fix. This is especially important in customer-facing scenarios. How many times have you called or emailed Customer Support with a problem, only to be given an answer only vaguely related to your actual question? How frustrating is that?

You don’t want to be that person.

I’ve seen workdays lost because someone fell down a rabbit hole of trying to solve a nonexistent problem ⁠— or worse, a symptom of a deeper problem. When they went back to talk to the customer again and asked more clarifying questions, they were able to find the answer in less than a minute. This is not an exaggeration ⁠— and I have also been guilty of the exact same behavior. It’s too easy to fall for this trap.

To fix this, I’ve formed a mental checklist of questions to myself to make sure I understand what it is I’m trying to do. 1

What am I being asked? Can I re-state the problem in my own words?

One of the first things I do is ask one or more clarifying questions. Even the most dead simple, “obviously…” questions.

Assumption is the mother of many small evils.

You know the plot in a romantic comedy where one lead stumbles upon an incriminating situation involving the other lead, and then they storm out and don’t let anyone explain? You know how annoying that is? “Just talk!” you think. “Let them explain!”

Talk to the customer. Let the customer explain. Ask them more questions about what they’re asking for. Then re-state the problem, as you understand it, back to them in your own words, and see if they agree.

This solves two problems of your own. First, you make sure you truly understand what they’re asking . Second, you make sure you truly understand what they’re asking. (Same words; two different meanings.)

If you know exactly what the question / problem is, then you can devise a strategy to solve it, even if you don’t fully understand it yet. If you don’t yet understand it, this is when you find that out, and you know your first step is to work on gaining that understanding.

Remember: if you can’t explain it simply, you probably don’t understand it well enough yourself.

Can I write this up on a whiteboard?

Generally, “whiteboarding” sucks. However, the act can force you to clarify, simplify; remove all extraneous bits and details and get to the root of the thing. I don’t always do this, but it is often helpful when discussing workflows, product features, and timelines. It’s also great when you want to get another set of eyes on a problem.

Do I understand all the words used in the problem statement?

When I started at my current company in FinTech , I knew absolutely nothing of the business, and it was a long uphill battle to learn both the applications we developed and the business itself in a timely manner. I spent many long hours studying user guides as well as industry training materials. I printed things out, I wrote them down, I memorized what I could.

Then, on the phone, I learned that even within this space it was possible for our customers to come up with twenty different ways of saying the exact same thing. Different jargon described the same workflows and procedures. It became increasingly apparent that even though I thought I understood the language, I still needed to ask: when you say x, do you mean x, y or z ?

You learn to recognize the red flags of jargon, or specialized in-house lingo. Is this word used in a different context than what I’m used to? Are they using an acronym? Are they describing a workflow or procedure I’m not accustomed to hearing about?

Diving into the meanings of the words can shed light on the problem and potentially lead you down a completely different path to solving it.

Is there any information that might be missing?

“I tried to run this report but it didn’t work.”

Can you fix this problem? If so, call me, because I need a good psychic.

Hopefully this gets covered by working through the above steps, but if not, try running through the bug report scenario , or try the “ ask why ” approach. List the steps presented and see if you can reproduce or rediscover the problem from that list alone. If you are making any assumptions along the way (“well they probably clicked this…” or “they most likely want this…”) then you are missing information and need to do more discovery.

Is this problem similar to another problem I’ve solved before?

Good documentation will save your life. When well done, you create your own specialized search engine and knowledge base that anyone can visit and poke through to find a solution to their problem.

You can’t be trusted to remember everything. Writing things down solves that problem. If you ever find yourself thinking, “hmm, this sounds vaguely familiar,” then hit that search button and see what you can find. Use all the Google Fu at your disposal.

I’ve seen situations where the same customer had the same problem, two years apart, with the same solution, already documented and ready to give to them. I’ve also seen multiple different customers have the same problem at just about the same time (phase of the moon or something) and, thanks to our documentation, only had to work through the problem once, and deliver the same solution to all of them.

Document! Search! This will be the subject of its own post soon.

Do I have all the information I need?

Almost everything above is a variation on this question. Be sure. Ask yourself: do I really have everything I need ? With the information I have now, can I properly lay out a plan of attack and find the solution? Is there any point along the way where I’m still making any assumptions?

Find and eliminate all uncertainties. Remember that thing about assumptions. Don’t do it.

It might feel like I’m describing some long draconian workflow to which a standardized call center script might be infinitely preferable. In reality, once you internalize the questions (and the most important thing of all, don’t assume ), you’ll see barely any additional time at all is added to any one call or conversation. What’s more: though I present these things in the context of customer support, the methodology can be used against any problem thrown at you in any context.

Once you’ve gathered all the information you might need, it’s time to plan how you’re going to solve the problem. There are many ways to do this, a few of which I’ll cover on the next blog post in this series. Then we’ll cover what to do with the results of your work, what happens when you still haven’t solved the problem, and why it’s important to reflect on your past experiences.

  • This list is inspired by (read: headers lifted, details added) How to Solve It , which itself is an inspiration for this whole series.

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A program is called recursive when an entity calls itself. A program is called iterative when there is a loop (or repetition).

Example: Program to find the factorial of a number 

Time and Space Complexity

Below is a detailed explanation to illustrate the difference between the two using the above example. We will study the different aspects of both recursive and iterative approaches.

1. Time Complexity

The time complexity of the method may vary depending on whether the algorithm is implemented using recursion or iteration.

  • Recursion : The time complexity of recursion can be found by finding the value of the nth recursive call in terms of the previous calls. Thus, finding the destination case in terms of the base case, and solving in terms of the base case gives us an idea of the time complexity of recursive equations. Please see Solving Recurrences for more details.  
  • Iteration : The time complexity of iteration can be found by finding the number of cycles being repeated inside the loop. 

Usage of either of these techniques is a trade-off between time complexity and size of code. If time complexity is the point of focus, and the number of recursive calls would be large, it is better to use iteration. However, if time complexity is not an issue and shortness of code is, recursion would be the way to go.

  • Recursion : Recursion involves calling the same function again, and hence, has a very small length of code. However, as we saw in the analysis, the time complexity of recursion can get to be exponential when there are a considerable number of recursive calls. Hence, usage of recursion is advantageous in shorter code, but higher time complexity.  
  • Iteration : Iteration is the repetition of a block of code. This involves a larger size of code, but the time complexity is generally lesser than it is for recursion. 

3. Overhead

Recursion has a large amount of Overhead as compared to Iteration. 

  • Recursion : Recursion has the overhead of repeated function calls, that is due to the repetitive calling of the same function, the time complexity of the code increases manyfold.  
  • Iteration : Iteration does not involve any such overhead. 

4. Infinite Repetition

Infinite Repetition in recursion can lead to a CPU crash but in iteration, it will stop when memory is exhausted. 

  • Recursion : In Recursion, Infinite recursive calls may occur due to some mistake in specifying the base condition, which on never becoming false, keeps calling the function, which may lead to a system CPU crash.  
  • Iteration : Infinite iteration due to a mistake in iterator assignment or increment, or in the terminating condition, will lead to infinite loops, which may or may not lead to system errors, but will surely stop program execution any further.

Difference between Iteration and Recursion

The following table lists the major differences between iteration and recursion:

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  • Understanding the iterative process, wi ...

Understanding the iterative process, with examples

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If you want to give the iterative process a try, this article is for you. We’ll walk you through how to define the iterative process, as well as how to implement this process on your own team. 

What is the iterative process? 

The iterative process is the practice of building, refining, and improving a project, product, or initiative. Teams that use the iterative development process create, test, and revise until they’re satisfied with the end result. You can think of an iterative process as a trial-and-error methodology that brings your project closer to its end goal. 

Iterative processes are a fundamental part of lean methodologies and Agile project management —but these processes can be implemented by any team, not just Agile ones. During the iterative process, you will continually improve your design, product, or project until you and your team are satisfied with the final project deliverable .

So what is a non-iterative process? 

In a non-iterative process, you and your team would work together to come up with a final product without necessarily trying new ideas along the way. Typically, non-iterative processes require more time during the conceptualization and creation phase, so that everything works as intended during the testing phase. 

Waterfall is the most common non-iterative process. In the waterfall model, you and your team will define project phases before the project starts. Each phase begins once a previous phase is completed in its entirety. Requirements and resources will typically be locked before a project begins, and the team avoids changing the project plan as much as possible. 

For example, imagine you’re working with a design agency to create an ebook. You first need to provide all of the copy for the ebook. Then, the design agency will take that copy and create designs. Finally, your internal team will copyedit the designed ebook to make sure everything looks ok. This is an example of the waterfall model because each phase relies on the previous step (i.e. you can’t copyedit the designed ebook until it’s been designed).

Depending on the team you’re on and the type of projects you run, non-iterative processes can be challenging because they don’t build in time for your team to iterate and continuously improve. Because there are so many unknowns and surprises in engineering, engineering teams in particular tend to use iterative processes instead of non-iterative ones, but any team can benefit. 

Is incremental design the same thing as iterative processes? 

Most teams use incremental design and iterative processes interchangeably, and in practice, they often go hand-in-hand. But there is a difference between the two terms.

In an iterative process, your team works to refine and improve your project based on feedback or new information. The key to the iterative process is trial and error: the project gets better over time as a result of these changes. 

In incremental design—sometimes called incremental development—you will add new features and build better things on top of your first version or deliverable. To run an incremental design process, teams will purposefully produce a bare-bones version of their ultimate project deliverable in order to get it out the door as quickly as possible (like Facebook’s old mantra—move fast and break things). Then, the team will iterate and improve upon the initial version by creating increments that include more features than the initial version. They will continue to do so until their deliverable has all of the functionality it needs to have. 

Most teams that use iterative processes use incremental design and vice versa. Good iterative processes are also incremental so that you can continuously improve on your original deliverable. Good incremental design is also iterative because you need to be able to respond to customer feedback and pivot if necessary.

Example iterative processes

Engineering.

Many engineering teams use the iterative process to develop new features, implement bug fixes, or A/B test new strategies. Often, an engineering team will create a few iterations that they think are equally promising, then test them with users. They’ll note pain points and successes, and then continue building out the one that tested the best.

Product development

You might be surprised to realize that most product development is very iterative. Think of any personal technology you’ve ever purchased for yourself—there was likely a previous version before the one you bought, and maybe a version afterwards, as well. Think of the development of mobile phones throughout the years, how speakers have gotten smaller and more portable over time, or even the way refrigerators from the same brands have changed to adapt to new family needs. All of these are iterative processes. 

Some marketing teams embrace iterative processes, others not so much. But to a certain extent, a lot of marketing is iterative. For example, some marketing teams might test different advertising copy to see which one gets better engagement, or send out two versions of an email newsletter to compare click-through rates. Alternatively, a brand marketing team could use iterative design processes to identify the imagery that works best for their target audience.

Though most of a sales team’s customer-facing work isn’t iterative, some of their tasks can benefit from iterative processes. For example, a sales team might take an iterative approach to sending cold emails. They might have their reps send a few different email subject lines and analyze the results. Then, the team can implement the most successful subject lines moving forward.

The 5 steps of the iterative process

The iterative process can help you during the lifecycle of a project. During the steps of the iterative process, your goals and requirements will serve as the project’s starting point. Then, your team will use testing, prototyping, and iteration to achieve the best possible result. Here’s how:

1. Planning and requirements

During this step in the iterative process, you will define your project plan and align on your overall project objectives . This is the stage where you will outline any hard requirements—things that must happen in order for your project to succeed. Without this step, you run the risk of iterating but not hitting your goals. 

2. Analysis and design

During this step, you and your team will focus on the business needs and technical requirements of your project. If step one was the process of outlining your goals, step two is when you brainstorm a design that will help you ultimately hit those goals. 

3. Implementation

During the third step, your team will create the first iteration of your project deliverable . This iteration will be informed by your analysis and design, and should work to hit your ultimate project objective. The level of detail and time you spend on this iteration will depend on the project.

Now that you have an iteration, you will test it in whatever way makes the most sense. If you’re working on an improvement to a web page, for example, you might want to A/B test it against your current web page. If you’re creating a new product or feature, consider doing usability testing with a set of potential customers. 

In addition to testing, you should also check in with your project stakeholders . Ask them to weigh in on the iteration, and provide any feedback . 

5. Evaluation and review 

After testing, your team will evaluate the success of the iteration and align on anything that needs to change. Does this iteration achieve your project objectives? Why, or why not? If something needs to change, you can restart the iterative process by going back to step two to create the next iteration. Keep in mind that your initial planning and goals should remain the same for all iterations. Continue building upon the previous iteration until you get to a deliverable you’re happy with.

If you restart the iterative process, make sure everyone is still aligned on your project goals. The iterative process can take weeks or months, depending on how many iterations you run through. Centering your iteration on your project objectives every time you restart the iterative process can help you ensure you don't lose track of your north star.

The benefits and challenges of the iterative process

The iterative model isn’t right for every team—or every project. Here are the main pros and cons of the iterative process for your team.

Increased efficiency. Because the iterative process embraces trial and error, it can often help you achieve your desired result faster than a non-iterative process. 

Increased collaboration. Instead of working from predetermined plans and specs (which also takes a lot of time to create), your team is actively working together.

Increased adaptability. As you learn new things during the implementation and testing phases, you can tweak your iteration to best hit your goals—even if that means doing something you didn’t expect to be doing at the start of the iterative process. 

More cost effective. If you need to change the scope of the project, you’ll only have invested the minimum time and effort into the process. 

Ability to work in parallel. Unlike other, non-iterative methodologies like the waterfall method, iterations aren’t necessarily dependent on the work that comes before them. Team members can work on several elements of the project in parallel, which can shorten your overall timeline. 

Reduced project-level risk . In the iterative process, risks are identified and addressed during each iteration. Instead of solving for large risks at the beginning and end of the project, you’re consistently working to resolve low-level risks.

More reliable user feedback. When you have an iteration that users can interact with or see, they’re able to give you incremental feedback about what works or doesn’t work for them.

Increased risk of scope creep . Because of the trial-and-error nature of the iterative process, your project could develop in ways you didn’t expect and exceed your original project scope . 

Inflexible planning and requirements. The first step of the iterative process is to define your project requirements. Changing these requirements during the iterative process can break the flow of your work, and cause you to create iterations that don’t serve your project’s purpose.

Vague timelines. Because team members will create, test, and revise iterations until they get to a satisfying solution, the iterative timeline isn’t clearly defined. Additionally, testing for different increments can vary in length, which also impacts the overall iterative process timeline. 

Try, trial, and try again

Ultimately, every team can learn something from the iterative process. When possible, approach work with a trial-and-error mentality. When in doubt, lean into flexibility and collaboration. And—whether or not you implement the iterative method—always strive for continuous improvement in your work. 

For more tips, read our article on 25 essential project management skills .

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Problems, Solutions, and Algorithms

Learning goals.

  • Be able to define the terms algorithm, pseudocode, and iteration
  • Be able to use pseudocode to describe the flow of an algorithm’s implementation
  • Be familiar with using iterative processes to design increasingly robust solutions
  • 10 - Warmup
  • 15 - Lecture
  • 15 - Lecture Cont.
  • 10 - Challenge 1
  • 15 - Challenge 2
  • 10 - Challenge 3
  • 5 - Closeout

Available here

Part 1 - Writing

First, spend 5 minutes writing an “algorithm” that explains how to tie your shoes. Try to be as explicit and specific as possible. Assume your reader is a human, but a very literal one.

Part 2 - Doing

Now, pair up with your neighbor. The person whose name is alphabetically first will read their algorithm step-by-step to the person whose name is alphabetically last. The person whose name is alphabetically last will attempt to tie their shoes according only to the instructions from their partner.

You can repeat instructions if needed, but don’t add any instructions beyond what you had originally written down.

Lecture - Big-Picture Strategy

  • What is an Algorithm a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.
  • Incremental solutions (linear)
  • Iterative solutions (spirals)
  • Building a full “slice”
  • “Half a product not a half-assed product”

An Iterative Process

  • Identify the big picture goal: What do you want your program to do? How will you know when you’ve succeeded?
  • Identify the interface: How do you want to interact with your program? What are its inputs and outputs?
  • Identify a small picture goal: What is the simplest case of this problem? Is there a sub-problem of even that case?
  • Plan to solve that small goal: Sketch ideas out in a notebook.
  • Write a small goal test: Identify expected inputs and outputs. Decide on a method name.
  • Implement: Write pseudocode and turn that into code.
  • Repeat: Is the whole problem solved? If not, go back to step 3.

Exercise 1 – Common Words

With a pair, answer the questions from steps 1 through 4 for the following problem. When you get to steps 3 and 4, repeat them at least 3 times for increasing levels of complexity.

I have a text document and want to know “What are the three most common words in the text?”

Extension : Let’s exclude the following: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, they, a, an.

Software Processes / Techniques – why do we care

  • Programming – what makes it hard? (Translating ideas into code? Or coming up with ideas?)
  • Perception - A good programmer is someone who solves technical problems easily
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  • Problem solving challenges: What to do vs. How to do it
  • “Dumping out the toolbox” - controlling nerves and pacing yourself
  • Software development techniques are designed to manage these difficulties
  • Agile Development

Remaining Exercises

Small groups - algorithm challenges.

We’ll then break into small groups to work through this process for a few different problems.

Odds & Evens

I have a file with 100 numbers. I want to create two new files: one with all the odds and one with all the evens.

Extension : Don’t allow duplicates in the output

Palindromes

A palindrome is a word or phrase that reads the same when you reverse all of the letters.

  • Never odd or even

A palindromic number is the same concept applied to numbers:

Create a program to find the largest palindromic number that you can create by multiplying two three digit numbers together.

Lats & Longs

I have a file with 100 latitude/longitude pairs. Find the point that’s closest to the north pole.

Extension : Find the one closest to the magnetic north pole.

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What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

Business team using creative problem-solving

  • 01 Feb 2022

One of the biggest hindrances to innovation is complacency—it can be more comfortable to do what you know than venture into the unknown. Business leaders can overcome this barrier by mobilizing creative team members and providing space to innovate.

There are several tools you can use to encourage creativity in the workplace. Creative problem-solving is one of them, which facilitates the development of innovative solutions to difficult problems.

Here’s an overview of creative problem-solving and why it’s important in business.

Access your free e-book today.

What Is Creative Problem-Solving?

Research is necessary when solving a problem. But there are situations where a problem’s specific cause is difficult to pinpoint. This can occur when there’s not enough time to narrow down the problem’s source or there are differing opinions about its root cause.

In such cases, you can use creative problem-solving , which allows you to explore potential solutions regardless of whether a problem has been defined.

Creative problem-solving is less structured than other innovation processes and encourages exploring open-ended solutions. It also focuses on developing new perspectives and fostering creativity in the workplace . Its benefits include:

  • Finding creative solutions to complex problems : User research can insufficiently illustrate a situation’s complexity. While other innovation processes rely on this information, creative problem-solving can yield solutions without it.
  • Adapting to change : Business is constantly changing, and business leaders need to adapt. Creative problem-solving helps overcome unforeseen challenges and find solutions to unconventional problems.
  • Fueling innovation and growth : In addition to solutions, creative problem-solving can spark innovative ideas that drive company growth. These ideas can lead to new product lines, services, or a modified operations structure that improves efficiency.

Design Thinking and Innovation | Uncover creative solutions to your business problems | Learn More

Creative problem-solving is traditionally based on the following key principles :

1. Balance Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Creative problem-solving uses two primary tools to find solutions: divergence and convergence. Divergence generates ideas in response to a problem, while convergence narrows them down to a shortlist. It balances these two practices and turns ideas into concrete solutions.

2. Reframe Problems as Questions

By framing problems as questions, you shift from focusing on obstacles to solutions. This provides the freedom to brainstorm potential ideas.

3. Defer Judgment of Ideas

When brainstorming, it can be natural to reject or accept ideas right away. Yet, immediate judgments interfere with the idea generation process. Even ideas that seem implausible can turn into outstanding innovations upon further exploration and development.

4. Focus on "Yes, And" Instead of "No, But"

Using negative words like "no" discourages creative thinking. Instead, use positive language to build and maintain an environment that fosters the development of creative and innovative ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving and Design Thinking

Whereas creative problem-solving facilitates developing innovative ideas through a less structured workflow, design thinking takes a far more organized approach.

Design thinking is a human-centered, solutions-based process that fosters the ideation and development of solutions. In the online course Design Thinking and Innovation , Harvard Business School Dean Srikant Datar leverages a four-phase framework to explain design thinking.

The four stages are:

The four stages of design thinking: clarify, ideate, develop, and implement

  • Clarify: The clarification stage allows you to empathize with the user and identify problems. Observations and insights are informed by thorough research. Findings are then reframed as problem statements or questions.
  • Ideate: Ideation is the process of coming up with innovative ideas. The divergence of ideas involved with creative problem-solving is a major focus.
  • Develop: In the development stage, ideas evolve into experiments and tests. Ideas converge and are explored through prototyping and open critique.
  • Implement: Implementation involves continuing to test and experiment to refine the solution and encourage its adoption.

Creative problem-solving primarily operates in the ideate phase of design thinking but can be applied to others. This is because design thinking is an iterative process that moves between the stages as ideas are generated and pursued. This is normal and encouraged, as innovation requires exploring multiple ideas.

Creative Problem-Solving Tools

While there are many useful tools in the creative problem-solving process, here are three you should know:

Creating a Problem Story

One way to innovate is by creating a story about a problem to understand how it affects users and what solutions best fit their needs. Here are the steps you need to take to use this tool properly.

1. Identify a UDP

Create a problem story to identify the undesired phenomena (UDP). For example, consider a company that produces printers that overheat. In this case, the UDP is "our printers overheat."

2. Move Forward in Time

To move forward in time, ask: “Why is this a problem?” For example, minor damage could be one result of the machines overheating. In more extreme cases, printers may catch fire. Don't be afraid to create multiple problem stories if you think of more than one UDP.

3. Move Backward in Time

To move backward in time, ask: “What caused this UDP?” If you can't identify the root problem, think about what typically causes the UDP to occur. For the overheating printers, overuse could be a cause.

Following the three-step framework above helps illustrate a clear problem story:

  • The printer is overused.
  • The printer overheats.
  • The printer breaks down.

You can extend the problem story in either direction if you think of additional cause-and-effect relationships.

4. Break the Chains

By this point, you’ll have multiple UDP storylines. Take two that are similar and focus on breaking the chains connecting them. This can be accomplished through inversion or neutralization.

  • Inversion: Inversion changes the relationship between two UDPs so the cause is the same but the effect is the opposite. For example, if the UDP is "the more X happens, the more likely Y is to happen," inversion changes the equation to "the more X happens, the less likely Y is to happen." Using the printer example, inversion would consider: "What if the more a printer is used, the less likely it’s going to overheat?" Innovation requires an open mind. Just because a solution initially seems unlikely doesn't mean it can't be pursued further or spark additional ideas.
  • Neutralization: Neutralization completely eliminates the cause-and-effect relationship between X and Y. This changes the above equation to "the more or less X happens has no effect on Y." In the case of the printers, neutralization would rephrase the relationship to "the more or less a printer is used has no effect on whether it overheats."

Even if creating a problem story doesn't provide a solution, it can offer useful context to users’ problems and additional ideas to be explored. Given that divergence is one of the fundamental practices of creative problem-solving, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into each tool you use.

Brainstorming

Brainstorming is a tool that can be highly effective when guided by the iterative qualities of the design thinking process. It involves openly discussing and debating ideas and topics in a group setting. This facilitates idea generation and exploration as different team members consider the same concept from multiple perspectives.

Hosting brainstorming sessions can result in problems, such as groupthink or social loafing. To combat this, leverage a three-step brainstorming method involving divergence and convergence :

  • Have each group member come up with as many ideas as possible and write them down to ensure the brainstorming session is productive.
  • Continue the divergence of ideas by collectively sharing and exploring each idea as a group. The goal is to create a setting where new ideas are inspired by open discussion.
  • Begin the convergence of ideas by narrowing them down to a few explorable options. There’s no "right number of ideas." Don't be afraid to consider exploring all of them, as long as you have the resources to do so.

Alternate Worlds

The alternate worlds tool is an empathetic approach to creative problem-solving. It encourages you to consider how someone in another world would approach your situation.

For example, if you’re concerned that the printers you produce overheat and catch fire, consider how a different industry would approach the problem. How would an automotive expert solve it? How would a firefighter?

Be creative as you consider and research alternate worlds. The purpose is not to nail down a solution right away but to continue the ideation process through diverging and exploring ideas.

Which HBS Online Entrepreneurship and Innovation Course is Right for You? | Download Your Free Flowchart

Continue Developing Your Skills

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, marketer, or business leader, learning the ropes of design thinking can be an effective way to build your skills and foster creativity and innovation in any setting.

If you're ready to develop your design thinking and creative problem-solving skills, explore Design Thinking and Innovation , one of our online entrepreneurship and innovation courses. If you aren't sure which course is the right fit, download our free course flowchart to determine which best aligns with your goals.

what is iterative problem solving

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Planning to iterate: Supporting iterative practices for real-world ill-structured problem-solving

  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • School of Education and Social Policy

Research output : Contribution to journal › Conference article › peer-review

Solving real-world highly ill-structured problems involves iteration: gathering information, building, testing, and revising products, experiments, and theories. However, we do not know how to create learning environments to teach iteration for highly ill-structured problems. How might we help student teams effectively iterate for highly ill-structured design problems? In this design-based research study we built on learning sciences research to implement Planning to Iterate—a weekly planning session in which teams create problem and planning representations. The study took place in a 6-week extracurricular undergraduate design program with five undergraduate project teams working on highly ill-structured problems. To understand team iterative practices, we analyzed videos of teams’ weekly planning sessions, and teams’ artifacts. Students significantly increased iterative practices, but infrequently integrated the practices together, suggesting re-design with additional coaching.

  • Design research
  • Planning tools
  • Problem-solving
  • Project-based learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science (miscellaneous)

Other files and links

  • Link to publication in Scopus
  • Link to the citations in Scopus

Fingerprint

  • Planning Social Sciences 100%
  • Problem Social Sciences 100%
  • Real World Computer Science 100%
  • Teams Computer Science 100%
  • planning INIS 100%
  • iterative methods INIS 100%
  • Research Psychology 100%
  • design INIS 80%

T1 - Planning to iterate

T2 - 13th International Conference of the Learning Sciences, ICLS 2018: Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age: Making the Learning Sciences Count

AU - Rees Lewis, Daniel G.

AU - Gorson, Jamie

AU - Maliakal, Leesha V.

AU - Carlson, Spencer E.

AU - Gerber, Elizabeth M

AU - Riesbeck, Christopher K

AU - Easterday, Matthew Wayne

N1 - Funding Information: We thank Delta Lab, Haoqi Zhang, Julie Hui, and Bruce Sherin for their feedback. We thank Alex Sher for help with implementation. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation (US) grants IIS-1530833 and IIS-1320693. Publisher Copyright: © ISLS.

N2 - Solving real-world highly ill-structured problems involves iteration: gathering information, building, testing, and revising products, experiments, and theories. However, we do not know how to create learning environments to teach iteration for highly ill-structured problems. How might we help student teams effectively iterate for highly ill-structured design problems? In this design-based research study we built on learning sciences research to implement Planning to Iterate—a weekly planning session in which teams create problem and planning representations. The study took place in a 6-week extracurricular undergraduate design program with five undergraduate project teams working on highly ill-structured problems. To understand team iterative practices, we analyzed videos of teams’ weekly planning sessions, and teams’ artifacts. Students significantly increased iterative practices, but infrequently integrated the practices together, suggesting re-design with additional coaching.

AB - Solving real-world highly ill-structured problems involves iteration: gathering information, building, testing, and revising products, experiments, and theories. However, we do not know how to create learning environments to teach iteration for highly ill-structured problems. How might we help student teams effectively iterate for highly ill-structured design problems? In this design-based research study we built on learning sciences research to implement Planning to Iterate—a weekly planning session in which teams create problem and planning representations. The study took place in a 6-week extracurricular undergraduate design program with five undergraduate project teams working on highly ill-structured problems. To understand team iterative practices, we analyzed videos of teams’ weekly planning sessions, and teams’ artifacts. Students significantly increased iterative practices, but infrequently integrated the practices together, suggesting re-design with additional coaching.

KW - Design research

KW - Iteration

KW - Planning tools

KW - Problem-solving

KW - Project-based learning

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?scp=85053864569&partnerID=8YFLogxK

UR - http://www.scopus.com/inward/citedby.url?scp=85053864569&partnerID=8YFLogxK

M3 - Conference article

AN - SCOPUS:85053864569

SN - 1814-9316

JO - Proceedings of International Conference of the Learning Sciences, ICLS

JF - Proceedings of International Conference of the Learning Sciences, ICLS

IS - 2018-June

Y2 - 23 June 2018 through 27 June 2018

what is iterative problem solving

IMAGES

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VIDEO

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COMMENTS

  1. Iterative method

    In computational mathematics, an iterative method is a mathematical procedure that uses an initial value to generate a sequence of improving approximate solutions for a class of problems, in which the n-th approximation is derived from the previous ones.. A specific implementation with termination criteria for a given iterative method like gradient descent, hill climbing, Newton's method, or ...

  2. Iterative Problem Solving

    Iterative Problem Solving. When it comes to solving problems, there are two main lines of thoughts: Plan, plan, do. Do, learn (repeat) I've found during my life experience that the second method is almost always the best one. It arrives at the solution quicker, and it solves the problem better. In this post, I'll explore why that is - how ...

  3. Sequencing, selection, and iteration

    An algorithm is made up of three basic building blocks: sequencing, selection, and iteration. Sequencing: An algorithm is a step-by-step process, and the order of those steps are crucial to ensuring the correctness of an algorithm. Here's an algorithm for translating a word into Pig Latin, like from "pig" to "ig-pay": 1.

  4. Understanding the Iterative Process: 5 Steps To Success

    What does the iterative process mean? (a.k.a. iterative process definition) An iterative process is an approach to problem-solving that involves breaking down a significant problem into smaller, more manageable pieces. Each piece is then worked on separately, combining and iterating the results to form a final solution.

  5. The Importance of Iteration in Problem Solving

    Iteration embodies the mindset that the first attempt at solving a problem is rarely optimal and that taking an incremental approach leads to better outcomes over time. In this article, we'll explore the power of iterative problem solving, the "fail fast" philosophy, and why iteration needs to be deeply ingrained in organizational cultures.

  6. The Iterative Process: A Guide to Creating, Refining and Improving

    An iterative approach is a method of problem-solving or decision-making that involves repeating a series of steps in a cycle until the desired outcome is achieved. It is characterized by continuous improvement and adaptation based on feedback and results. ... In the context of problem-solving, decision-making, and product development, iterative ...

  7. Iterative Process

    The iterative process, a procedure that is repeated many times, is a mathematical method of solving problems by repeating a function or process and recycling an output as the next iteration's ...

  8. Problem-Solving and Algorithms: Diving Deep into Iterative ...

    The thing about iteration is that it's simple, efficient, and adaptable, making it a popular choice for solving problems. One thing that's really cool about iterative algorithms is how simple ...

  9. An Iterative Approach to Problem Solving, Part 1

    The path from finding a problem to finding its solution can sometimes be obscured by assumptions, vague wording, and misunderstandings. What follows is the first part of an iterative approach to clearing the path before you set out on it, so your journey to the solution is unobstructed and free from distraction. Define the Problem

  10. Recursion vs Iteration: Different Approaches to Problem Solving

    Recursion vs Iteration: Different Approaches to Problem Solving Code is a craft. You can solve the same problem in many ways, but some approaches are more readable, more maintainable, more robust ...

  11. Difference between Recursion and Iteration

    Thus, finding the destination case in terms of the base case, and solving in terms of the base case gives us an idea of the time complexity of recursive equations. Please see Solving Recurrences for more details. Iteration: The time complexity of iteration can be found by finding the number of cycles being repeated inside the loop. 2. Usage

  12. Iterative Problem-Solving: A Guide for Teamwork

    Iterative problem-solving is an effective approach for complex, ambiguous, or dynamic problems that require creative and flexible solutions. To begin, you must define the problem by identifying ...

  13. How to master the seven-step problem-solving process

    Iterative problem solving is a critical part of this. Sometimes, people think work planning sounds dull, but it isn't. It's how we know what's expected of us and when we need to deliver it and how we're progressing toward the answer. It's also the place where we can deal with biases. Bias is a feature of every human decision-making ...

  14. The Importance of Iteration in Problem Solving

    Iteration embodies the mindset that the first attempt at solving a problem is rarely optimal and that taking an incremental approach leads to better outcomes over time. In this article, we'll ...

  15. Understanding the iterative process, with examples

    The iterative process is one of those words that, like Agile, automatically makes us think of engineering teams.But most teams iterate in one way or another, and using an iterative method can help you reduce risk, manage efficiency, and approach problems in a more flexible and dynamic way.. If you want to give the iterative process a try, this article is for you.

  16. What is iterative?

    Iterative (prounounced IT-ter-a-teev) is an adjective that means repetitious.

  17. What is an iterative approach and what are its benefits?

    The agile, iterative model, also known as the PDCA cycle, is an iterative design and management method used to improve processes and products continually. Since it is an iterative model, it is all about utilizing the repetition of a sequence of operations or procedures; in other words, it is about breaking down large projects into smaller tasks ...

  18. PDF Chapter 5 Iterative Methods for Solving Linear Systems

    392 CHAPTER 5. ITERATIVE METHODS FOR SOLVING LINEAR SYSTEMS 5.2 Convergence of Iterative Methods Recall that iterative methods for solving a linear system Ax = b (with A invertible) consists in finding some ma-trix B and some vector c,suchthatI B is invertible, andtheuniquesolutionxeofAx = bisequaltotheunique solution eu of u = Bu+c.

  19. Problems, Solutions, and Algorithms

    What is an Algorithm a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer. Incremental solutions (linear) Iterative solutions (spirals) Building a full "slice" "Half a product not a half-assed product" An Iterative Process

  20. What Is Creative Problem-Solving & Why Is It Important?

    Creative problem-solving primarily operates in the ideate phase of design thinking but can be applied to others. This is because design thinking is an iterative process that moves between the stages as ideas are generated and pursued. This is normal and encouraged, as innovation requires exploring multiple ideas.

  21. Planning to iterate: Supporting iterative practices for real-world ill

    Solving real-world highly ill-structured problems involves iteration: gathering information, building, testing, and revising products, experiments, and theories. However, we do not know how to create learning environments to teach iteration for highly ill-structured problems.

  22. The Power of Iteration: Your Secret Key to Problem-Solving

    Let iteration become your trusted companion in the journey of life. With an iterative mindset, you'll transform problems into opportunities, hurdles into learning experiences, and failures into stepping stones towards success. Iteration is not just a problem-solving tool. It's a way of life, a philosophy that encourages continuous learning ...

  23. CES Foundation Module 2 Lesson 5 Problem Solving Post Test

    What step of the Army problem-solving process is performed after generating possible solutions to a problem. Analyze possible solutions. What is the iterative planning methodology that integrates the activities of the commander, staff, subordinate headquarters, and other partners. Military Decision-Making Process (MDMP)

  24. PDF Iterative Methods for Navier-Stokes Inverse Problems

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  25. Research Shows Coffee Can Make You Smarter, More Creative, and More

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