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Definition of Done: the Swiss Army Knife of Scrum

October 1, 2018

Most of the concepts in Scrum are easy to understand but extremely difficult to master. This is due to the fact that Scrum is designed for perfect, and reality never is. The same principle applies to the Definition of Done.

When we start up teams, we help them to set a Definition of Done (DoD). Teams are taught that the DoD is an instrument that will provide them transparency in two ways:

  • Understanding what the effort of work is, considering all the tasks that need to be undertaken by the team before work can be marked as “done”.
  • Understanding what “done” means when an item is inspected at the end of the sprint.

Reality is Imperfect
Many teams do not deliver every sprint a potentially shippable increment in the hands of the customer. In most cases their DOD does not stretch that far (yet). In many organisations, activities to bundle increments into a release are treated in a separate sprint, or even worse, by a separate department. Many teams don't know who the customer actually is (although this should not be too difficult since this is unambiguously the person that needs the product so bad he/she actually is willing to pay money for it). The reality is - teams work with an imperfect Definition of Done and continuously must strive to grow their abilities to deliver a done product. The DoD can therefore best be seen as a perfection goal.

The reason for the Definition of Done being too ambitious for teams to adhere to is twofold.

Firstly, the perfect DoD cannot be reached due to absence of knowledge in the team. The imperfect Definition of Done therefore represents the current team’s capabilities and what the team will need to learn. The same principle applies at scale. When multiple teams together build one product, some teams have done more learning than others and apply a more or less imperfect DoD. When it comes to delivering a shippable product, the teams need to overcome the sum of their imperfections against one true “done” product. The aggregated imperfections of all teams’ DoD’s equals the work that needs to be done to deliver a shippable product.

Secondly, the imperfection is caused by organisational constraints. In many organisations, development teams are physically not able or allowed to deliver product in the hands of the customer. For instance, IT R&D considers their work as “done” when delivered to the release train, or the marketing campaign is “done” when delivered to an external company for execution. Bringing this work into the development team is considered to be impossible. The imperfect DoD therefore is an indicator for the amount of change an organisation can handle.

The Definition of Done is a true Swiss army knife of Scrum since it is a tool that:

- helps teams to plan realistically
- creates transparency about the state of the increment 
- shows the current abilities of teams against “done”
- acts as a perfection goal for teams to grow towards
- shows the work required to fit together the increments into one product
- is a measure for the amount of change an organization can handle

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