Sunday, October 3, 2021

Five reasons for having a Definition of Done

"Do we really need to waste our time to come up with a Definition of Done?"  - well: of course, you're free to do that or not. Just give me your attention for a few minutes to consider the multiple benefits you gain from having one.

Before we start
Many people use the term "Done" in reference to their share of the work, as in, "I am done." This leads to multiple, oftentimes inconsistent, definitions of "development done," - "testing done," - "deployment done." While this may be a choice the team makes, customers don't care who specifically is done with their own work. They care when they receive a product - hence:
The Definition of Done is not set for specific phases of the working process
- it refers to product increments that have passed all stages of the team's process.
As such, it encompasses all the usual activities related to an organization's development process and applies to every single product backlog item.

Now - what does a Definition of Done offer?

#1 - A Quality Standard

"But I thought you had performance tested it?" - "No, a performance test was not part of the acceptance criteria!" - "It's obvious that with that kind of performance, the feature is entirely unusable!" - "Then you should have requested us to performance test it!"

Well - in such a conversation, nobody is a winner: the customer is dissatisfied because they don't get what they need, developers are dissatisfied because they just got an extra load of work, and the Product Owner is dissatisfied because they ended up getting no deliverable value.

The Definition of Done aligns stakeholder expectations on product quality.

Should the customer be bothered to re-confirm their quality expectations on every single user story, and should they be required to re-state that this expectation applies for every release? No.

Once everyone is clear that something is a universal quality requirement, adding a simple statement like, "all pages load within less than a second," would make it clear that the team's work isn't done until the customer's demand is satisfied.

#2 - Common understanding

"I'm done." - "When can I have it?" - "Well, I still need to commit it, then we'll produce a build package, then it goes to testing, let's see where it goes from there ..." - "But didn't you say you were done?" - "I'm done with development."

When different people have different mental models of what "done" means, everyone uses the term in the way that is most convenient for them.

The Definition of Done defines how the term, "Done" is used in the organization.

So much organizational waste - from extended meetings, over people trying to do things that can't possibly succeed, all the way to massive management escalations, is attributed toward misaligned use of this short, simple word: "Done."

#3 - Simpler communication

"I'm done." - "Did you do any necessary refactorings?" - "Will do later." - "If it's not refactored, you can't commit it! And did you get your code reviewed?" - "Do I really need to?" - "That's part of our policy. Where are your unit tests?" - "I don't think that module needs tests." - "Dude, without tests, it's un-maintainable! And did you check with the testers yet?" - "Why should I?" - "What if they found any problems?" --- "Sorry to disturb: I saw that the feature is marked as Done. Can I use it yet?" - "Almost." - "No!" - "Okay, I'm confused now, I'll set up a meeting later so you can explain the status to me."

When everyone understands what needs to be done to be "Done" (pun intended) - communication is much simpler - long, deep probing to discover the actual condition of an individual work item become un-necessary.

The Definition of Done simplifies conversations.

Everyone should be clear what it means when someone uses the term "Done" - what must be understood, and what can be understood.

Everyone must understand, "When it's not covered by the DoD - you can't expect that someone did it, especially when it wasn't explicitly agreed beforehand."

Likewise, everyone can understand, "When it is covered by the DoD - you don't need to ask whether someone did it when people say it was done."

#4 - Providing clarity

"I need an online shop." - "No problem." - "Can you store the orders in the database?" - "We know how to do our job!" - "Can you make sure that baskets don't get lost when users close the browser?" - "That makes it much more complicated. How about we do a basic version now, and we'll add basket session persistence later on once you have a solid user base?" - "Can you make sure the shop has good performance?" - "What do you mean, 'good performance?'"

Stakeholders are often unaware what the team normally does or doesn't do and what they can definitely expect from the product. Hence, they may communicate incomplete or overspecific requirements to the team, both of which are problematic.

Incomplete requirements lead to low-value products that lack essential features, oftentimes leading both parties to conclude that the other party is an idiot.

Overly specific requirements, on the other hand, usually lead to sub-optimal implementations and waste effort when there are easier, better ways to meet user expectations than specified by the customer.

The Definition of Done avoids over-specification on items covered in the DoD.
It likewise avoids under-specification for points not covered in the DoD.

Within the confines of the Definition of Done, the team gains freedom what to do and how to do things, as long as all aspects of the DoD are met. It allows customers to keep out of details that the team handles within the standards of their professional ethics.

#5 - Preventing spillover work

"We're done on this feature." - "Splendid. Did you do functional testing?" - "Yup." - "And?" - "3 defects." - "Are they fixed yet?" - "If we'd do that, we'd not meet the timeline, so we deferred them until after the Release." - "But ... doesn't that mean you still have work to do?" - "Not on the feature. Only on the defects." - "But don't defects mean the Acceptance Criteria aren't met?" - "The defects are so minor that they can be fixed later ..."

We see this happening in many organizations.  Unfortunately, there are two insidious problems here:

1. Based on the Pareto principle, the costs of the undone work could massively outweigh the cost of the done work, potentially toppling the product's entire business case. And nobody knows.

2. Forecasting future work is a challenge when capacity is drained in an ill-defined manner. The resulting loss of transparency decreases customer trust and generates stress within the team.

The Definition of Done ensures that there is no future work induced by past work.

The Definition of Done is a protection for the team, in that they will not accumulate a constantly rising pile of undone work which will eventually incapacitate them.

Likewise, a solid DoD protects the business, because there is a much lower risk that one day, developers will have to state that, "We can't deliver any further value until we invest a massive amount of time and money to clear our debt."


The reasons for having a Definition of Done may vary from team to team, and each person might find a different reason compelling. While it's definitely within the realm of possibility that none of the benefits outlined in this article are meaningful in your context, at least ponder whether the hour-or-two it takes to align on the key points of a Definition of Done are worthwhile the amount of stress you might have to indulge by not having one.

A Definition of Done is not cast in stone - it's up to negotiation, and points can be added and removed during Inspection and Adaptation events, such as team Retrospectives. As long as everyone can agree to a change, that change is legitimate.

If you don't have a DoD yet, try with a very simple one and take it from there.

As a conclusion of this article, I'll even throw in my favorite minified DoD:

No work remaining.

1 comment:

  1. Your doing an awsome work by setting words on thing that all organisations and team facing