I’ll have a definition of “done” when I’m dead

One of the great bugbears of scrum and scrumbut systems is the Definition of Done (DoD, not to be confused with the Pentagon). Managing a product by post-hoc reporting works best when everybody on the “team” can point to a wiki page somewhere and proclaim, “My feature is done!”

Now on that wiki page, behind the cobwebs and broken links, is a bulleted list. It lists things such as: the code is written; the tests pass; the things are prepared; other things have been accepted; — or whatever else the management had everybody decide at last year’s Why The Product Is Late summit, in that classic consensus-building exercise where the manager speaks and everybody else waits, silent yet eager, for the moment of quiet assent to pass.

After a developer has checked in her work and proclaimed “my feature is done!” she is absolved. In a state of grace she drifts towards the weekend.

That’s our first definition of done. We’ll call it DoD (1).

Sometimes one might ask: what does it mean to be done with this product?

The answers come from way over there, outside of the technical group. The product is being sunsetted, repositioned, moved upmarket or downmarket. Retired, put to pasture, abandoned. Maybe frozen: the changeless, icy core around which the salesforce orbits.

If a feature can be done when it’s “done!” on Friday morning, a product can be done in the same way a puppy is done. Either it grows into something else or it just doesn’t make it. That’s DoD (2).

But what about you? Yes, you. What does it mean for you to be done? Are you done when the product is? When you have enough money to retire, or are forced into management? When you give notice? When your contract is up, and you from your labors rest? Let’s call this hairball DoD (3).

The Ann Arbor Chronicle is the newspaper in a town I once lived in. After writing for long enough to gestate an actual living human being, Dave Askins, the Chronicle’s editor, published a fascinating editorial grappling with the job. His readers compared the gig to running a marathon. But, Dave wrote:

“It’s not really clear what counts as the finish line — when I die, perhaps? The idea of attending Ann Arbor city council meetings until the day I die is a fairly sobering prospect. I’m not sure that’s what I signed up for.”

That was four years ago, but I remember it as the most acute condition of DoD (3) I’ve ever seen.

Now, I’ve used the word “done” in each of these senses, and more. It’s as slippery and unhygienic as a river otter. But here at Different Chairs, I call something “done” when it’s ready to start.

Before your product is ready to radiate out into the ether and help real people change the world in real, measurable (if tiny!) ways, it’s in development. It’s in process. But when it’s useful enough to keep somebody’s attention long enough to help them do something — guess what? — it’s done. Instead of wondering what’s the most important thing to do, or worrying about your development schedule and the tenuous ligaments holding it to reality, or the fact that time speeds up as you fall behind schedule, relax: you’re done! It’s time to watch how people use the experience you’ve created for them, and learn from their mistakes and yours, and improve the experience in worthwhile and surprising ways.

That is to say: once you’re done, you can really get started.

“I’ll have a definition of ‘done’ when I’m dead” was originally published in the Different Chairs journal.