The Perfect Definition of Done

In addition to whatever else it may have to offer, Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) has resting inside it an idea that is powerful in both its simplicity and scope. Its the idea of the perfect Definition of Done.

According to LeSS Rules, The perfection goal is to improve the Definition of Done so that it results in a shippable product each Sprint (or even more frequently).[1]

The big idea here is that we can use our Definition of Done as a measure or indicator of how well we’re doing on our road to integrating teams, providing rapid, end-to-end responses to customer need and market change, and becoming truly agile. Examining the Definition of Done can help us see and navigate through the incremental steps to achieve this agility.

The idea becomes clearer when we look at four basic steps that are suggested for defining your Definition of Done:[2]

  1. Establish all the actions needed to ship to end customers
  2. Work out what can be done in a sprint
  3. Step back and look at the “undone work” that will be left
  4. Come up with your first incremental improvement goal for expanding the Definition of Done to decrease the undone work.

Those four “simple” steps may include many impressive barriers and encompass a lot of hard work before we achieve the perfect Definition of Done, and in some cases we may not get there for a very long time. But I believe those few steps do express what we’re trying to achieve. You need, of course, to include empowerment, eliminating hand-offs, continuous improvement, and so on. But the fact is, driving toward perfection in your Definition of Done will necessarily involve these principles and practices. They represent the means by which you’ll get there.

There are a couple things I especially like about this approach to defining and maturing the Definition of Done.

First, the idea is scalable.

It’s scalable because the concept applies equally well to an individual team, a whole set of teams working together on a large product, or an entire organization. Regardless of where you are in the game, this approach can be applied. Even an individual team member can look at the current scene and ask themselves, “Am I contributing to a silo? What can I do to improve flow along with the scope of what I contribute?”  At the entire organization level, we can ask, “What’s our cycle time to customer delivery for the entire organization? Can we broaden our Definition of Done to also include measuring outcomes?” And, “Can we include our customers even more deeply in initial product definition? What incremental steps do I take in that direction?” Questions that again, any single team can also ask of itself.

A second thing I like about this idea of the perfect Definition of Done as a measure of and guide to agile maturity, is that it is non-judgmental.

That may sound like an odd thing to say.  Here’s what I mean: Both Scrum itself, as embodied in the Scrum Guide, and LeSS are clear about the goal of having potentially releasable product every sprint.  But the way Larman and Bodde have laid out these suggested steps to creating the perfect Definition of Done, they have implicitly conveyed it in these terms:

  • What’s the specific ideal state – in terms of end-to-end production in a single sprint, for this organization we are dealing with?
  • What can we do now?  How close can we come?
  • What’s the next step we can take to get closer to the ideal?

To me this communicates that, while not compromising on what true agile development at scale means and the value in knowing what it should look like and moving relentlessly toward it, we may not achieve perfection overnight. What is important is that there is an alignment on the goal, and an intensity in moving in that direction. In the end, the market, along with the group’s own desire to produce and contribute, will determine what pace is necessary and achievable.

Any agilest would do well to familiarize themselves with the concept of the perfect Definition of Done, as described in LeSS. It’s in a way the simplest of lenses, one through which a team’s, a unit’s or an entire organization’s agile maturity can be brought into focus, and the optimum road forward viewed with greater clarity.

Of course broadening one’s view of the Definition of Done associates with how broadly the Product is defined, both initially and over time. But that is topic for another time.

[1] Large-Scale Scrum: More with LeSS (Larman and Bodde, 2016 Addison Wesley)

[2] Ibid

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