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Recently, I attended a Scrum webinar and listened to Ken Rubin, of Innolution talk about, among other things, the word “done.” It is the most misunderstood word in technology companies and the graphic below explains it beautifully.

As my regular readers know, I am a huge proponent of a smart start. Any experienced project manager understands that people will often have differing understandings of what done means. The problem transcends technology companies, startups, nonprofits, and the entire business world.

This means that starting a project must include the task of developing an understanding of what done looks like for each major activity, and documenting that understanding. Whether it’s an Agile team defining done for a timebox, or a technology company defining done for a release, or a financial services firm defining done for the large milestones in a merger, there are no short cuts. Any parent understands that if you ask your children to go and clean their room, you shouldn’t be too surprised to find the mess hidden under the bed.

Let’s take a few specific examples:

Volunteers planning a large event

Recently, I was working with a group of volunteers to plan a large event. The venue had to be changed at the last minute because no one really read the contract and understood some of the restrictions. The volunteers were not at all interested in spending time talking through event logistics, and there was no project manager. It was ultimately a success, in that folks had a lot of fun. But behind the scenes, it was a disaster. The person in charge of the wine brought no corkscrews. The person who volunteered to be in charge of decorations didn’t understand that ladders, hammers, and a small crew would be needed to install the decorations that she had borrowed and purchased. Fortunately, the caterer was experienced and showed up with the necessary food and utensils.

Technology companies with low estimates

A technology company that I periodically work with was wondering why their estimates were consistently low. The programmers were estimating time to code. The clients thought testing was being done. No project oversight or communications was ever included in the estimates, and because documentation was rarely finished, subsequent support requests always took more time than necessary. Pay now, or pay later.

Startup creating new website

A startup that I was working with was moving their website to WordPress. The owner built the basic site, but hired a graphic designer/web developer to help. One task was: Include clear and compelling images on site pages. Seems straightforward, right? But who actually finds the images? Who makes the decision on which images to use? Who worries about whether they are properly licensed? And, if a contractor, who is helping the startup, purchases the images, does their license entitle them to use the pictures on a client’s site?

What’s the solution?

There is no quick and easy way to obtain clarity on what done looks like, but understanding the potential for a lack of understanding helps. Don’t assume that your team members are all of one mind. After all, you build a diversified team to have multiple perspectives.

Define Done: Diversified teams don’t all think alike. Don’t expect them to all know what it means. Click To Tweet

Knowing the industry you are working in, and the unique challenges of that industry helps. Asking lots of questions may seem annoying but it is essential. Unless someone is clarifying done, you can be sure that no one will know what it means. So, what does “done” mean? Does anyone on your team know?

Photo credit: Slide from presentation used with the expression permission of Ken Rubin.