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The Definition of Done & The Path to Project Management Bliss

Meditative businessman is looking for the best solution for the business development process. Business icons are drawn over the huge blackboard.Success is not about checking off a box to say that you have finished something. That’s just finishing something. You can only truly succeed when you have transcended to a new state of being.

In project terms, I call this the Definition of Done. It is a Zen-like state in which you become something greater than what you were and can do new and wonderful things. True, this state is achieved by completing things, but the tasks in achieving a Definition of Done are just steps along the path to enlightenment.

The best Definitions of Done are but transitory states that enable you to grow and achieve new Definitions of Done. You see, the Definition of Done is just a state of being that allows you to do new things.

Okay, maybe that’s too metaphysical for you, but the fundamental truth still applies in life as in business. A project succeeds not because all of the tasks were completed in a project. The project succeeds only when it enables you, your business, and your people to do new things.

The Definition of Done describes what someone can do when the project is successful.

As a company that relies on knowledge and information, part of your success depends on how well your employees, partners, and customers can find and use that information. Creating content, having a content management system, and developing governance and content strategies mean nothing without the Definition of Done.

Let’s say your company has a team of customer service representatives (CSR). The CSRs receive calls from existing customers with issues or questions. You want to make sure they can do their job effectively.

So, you create a course, quick reference guide, and coaching program for the CSRs and post all of the developed content to your intranet. You probably even developed learning objectives for the courses and set out performance standards for the CSRs to measure how well they are doing at their jobs.

After a few months, the performance standards show that customer questions are often answered incorrectly and that many customer issues are not being resolved correctly. Checking the content you posted reveals that all of the information is correct and complete.

An investigation into the issue show that only half of the CSRs regularly read the quick reference guides, and very few of the CSRs refer to their materials while talking to customers. The coaches don’t have time to speak with the CSRs and the training course has been largely forgotten by those who attended it.

In other words, no one is using what you created and the CSRs are doing poorly at their jobs.

The source of the problem is that the CSRs received a basic, out-of-the-box solution that didn’t really address how they worked. More importantly, there was no immediate test to see if the solution actually worked.

Having a Definition of Done would have created a set of testable requirements that show if you have succeeded. For example, a good Definition of Done would have stated that a CSR can

  • tell your customers about products and services offered by your company
  • match a customer’s needs to the right products and services
  • resolve a customer’s issues, and
  • increase the chance that a customer will purchase new products or services.

With this Definition of Done as a starting point you could then work with the CSRs and your content team to develop a solution that would allow the CSR to achieve the desired results. You would also test the solution to make sure that it actually works, before rolling the solution into production.

Getting to the Definition of Done is the challenge. We’ve been taught for years that projects are made up of tasks that need to be done. This teaching does not extend to defining why those tasks need to be done however. So, let’s take a moment and explore the parts of a good Definition of Done and the steps we can take to building one.

For starters, a Definition of Done needs a beneficiary. Who will benefit from the completion of your efforts? In the example provided above, the CSR is the person who benefits the most. We could also look at the customers, stakeholders, or other parties who might benefit.

Next, we need to understand how the beneficiary will improve as a result of the work. This can either be a new action the beneficiary can perform, or a new state the beneficiary assumes. For the CSR, our Definition of Done describes what the CSR can do.

Your measurement then becomes whether the beneficiary can perform the actions listed, or assume the state described. If the beneficiary can meet this measurement, then you have succeeded and your work is done.

An interesting point about the Definition of Done is that you can achieve it without necessarily completing all of the work you planned out. For example, if the CSR was able to achieve all of the requirements you outlined as Definitions of Done, and all you did was implement the coaching session, then you do not need to do the rest of the work.

Once you have achieved your Definition of Done, you can relax and return to a Zen-like state where everything in the world is in balance and harmony. Or, you could also dig into the next Definition of Done and keep the story moving.


mark-pepperAbout the author: Mark Pepper is the Director of Programs and Professional Services at Precision Content. He manages the company’s program management office and is the resident expert spearheading the companies agile practice. Mark has 20 years of experience in communications, project management, information architecture, product development, and learning development. This is Mark’s first article on the Precision Content blog, but we look forward to reading his next post soon.

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