Do This Before You Start Working on Any Project
A simple strategy that will make you more effective when working on any kind of project.
A simple strategy that will make you more effective when working on any kind of project.
It may sound contradictory, but in the last four years I’ve created the habit of starting all my projects by defining how they should end — and it has increased my effectiveness remarkably. In this article, I will discuss why and how you should consider applying that same strategy to your projects.
The strategy I am referring to is based on creating a Definition of Done, one of the most important concepts used in the Scrum framework. The idea is to start any project phase by first establishing a set of criteria that the final product of that phase must meet for it to be considered complete.
The main purpose of a Definition of Done is to ensure that everyone involved in the project has a mutual understanding of what “complete” means for that specific phase.
For those not familiar with the term, Scrum is a highly successful framework for effective team collaboration, mostly used for software development projects.
However, I believe that the Definition of Done concept can be extremely valuable for projects in any area, whether large or small, collaborative or individual. Ever since I first learned about Definitions of Done four years ago, I’ve been applying this strategy to some extent to every project I start.
Whether it is a small task at work or a highly complex project with multiple phases like writing my Ph.D. thesis, I’ve found that having a clear, explicit definition of what I want to achieve before I even start helps me keep focused on the things that matter most.
In his bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen R. Covey shares similar principles when presenting Habit 2, “Begin with the end in mind”:
“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction” — Stephen R. Covey.
Why Every Project Should Have a Definition of Done
Establishing a Definition of Done means that we are actually starting by defining the end. Think about it for a moment. Doesn’t it make sense to imagine exactly what you want to achieve before you start planning the steps that will get you there?
When you use a navigation app to find a route, you need to set your desired destination. Without knowing where you want to go, the app won’t be able to suggest any directions.
An interesting way to use this strategy when dealing with a huge project is to divide it into smaller, actionable phases and create a Definition of Done before starting each phase (similarly as done in Scrum).
In the long term, this can save a lot of time (and, consequently, of money) especially if there are several people involved. By making sure that all parties concerned with the project have a shared understanding of what it means to be Done with the current phase, the risk of later needing to work on it again gets minimized.
On the other hand, if there is no such mutual understanding, people responsible for a later project phase may receive an intermediate product that doesn’t meet their expectations, and this will likely cause the project to go out of track at some point.
If this happens on multiple phases without being noticed quickly enough, incomplete work will start to accumulate, and sooner or later the debt will show up — possibly at compounding rates of interest.
While establishing a Definition of Done is clearly crucial for large projects with multiple phases and several concerned parties, it is also valuable for smaller projects. For instance, if you are a freelancer creating a product or providing a service for a client, you need to ensure that you and this client are on the same page about his needs and expectations.
If you aren’t, you’ll likely miss some of those requirements, while maybe wasting time working on things that are not really necessary or desired.
Even if you are working all by yourself and only for yourself, on a personal project, it is still worth it to reflect a bit on your expectations.
By explicitly defining your final destination, you will not only be in a better position to see in which direction you need to go, but you will also find it easier to tell whether you still have some way to go or you’ve finally got there.
In these modern times, when we are constantly shifting our attention from one thing to the other and many people struggle with focusing on one task for long, an additional advantage of this strategy is that it may help you to mindfully avoid multi-tasking.
While there are still items unchecked in your Definition of Done, you know you still have work to do before you can move on to the next project phase or switch to a new project.
Creating Effective Definitions of Done
1. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals
Establishing a Definition of Done is basically defining a set of goals for your project or a project phase. I’ve found that the widespread advice of setting S.M.A.R.T. goals works great for creating Definitions of Done.
You will find different definitions for S.M.A.R.T. from different sources, but one of the most popular definitions goes like this: your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
The goals in your Definition of Done need to specific and measurable so that you can easily assess whether you’ve reached them. They obviously also need to be achievable, or else you will never get to being Done.
They need to be relevant for at least one of the people involved, whether the final client or a teammate who will take over the project once you finish working on the current phase.
Finally, since your project probably has a deadline, those goals will naturally be time-bound. Thus, you don’t need to set a specific deadline for each goal — there will usually be a single deadline for the entire project or project phase.
But you need to make sure that all goals in the Definition of Done are achievable within the given deadline — if they are not, you need to either reduce the requirements or try to postpone the deadline.
2. Make sure that all concerned parties agree with and understand the Definition of Done
As stated previously, one of the main purposes of the Definition of Done is to ensure that all people concerned with the project agree on what it means for a specific phase to be considered complete.
Therefore, everyone needs to be involved in the process of defining what being Done means. The Definition of Done needs to be discussed and improved upon until all concerned parties are happy with it and fully understand what is expected from the final product.
3. Make it visible and refer back to it often
After reaching an agreement for the Definition of Done, print it and display it where it will be visible to everyone so that people can refer back to it whenever necessary.
Encourage people to do it often and discuss with them whether the project is still moving in the right direction. Show your clients the current project state and get them involved in those discussions.
These actions will help to detect cases where the project is indeed going in the wrong direction as soon as possible, while it is still possible to fix the issues and avoid greater damages.
4. Done? Great!
If your team has followed the steps above in all project phases and all items in their Definitions of Done have been checked out, that means that you are really Done with the project. Congratulations!
5. When Done is not enough
However, if you finally get to be Done but there is still something in the product that your clients are not fully satisfied with, it probably means that the Definition of Done you established was unfortunately not detailed enough to start with.
That’s all right, humans make mistakes, and clients often change their minds about what they want (actually, sometimes they are not so sure of what they want). It happens.
Fortunately, since you have been working closely with and getting constant feedback from your clients, most of such cases should only concern smaller details that were previously not considered important enough to make it into the Definition of Done.
If you find yourself in this situation, consider working on an additional phase to deal with what is missing. But don’t forget to create a more detailed Definition of Done this time, making sure that it now covers everything that is missing.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Mistake #1: Focusing on the journey, not on the destination
I know, this goes against the usual self-help advice that advocates for mindfully focusing on the journey. But, when it comes to creating a Definition of Done for a project, it makes complete sense to not think about the journey and focus solely on the destination.
Although at this point you should be thinking about what you want to create, you may find yourself already planning how you will do it. While it’s natural for our brain to start making plans and connections when we are thinking about our goals, that’s not the purpose of the Definition of Done.
To avoid that, try to use adjectives as much as possible when creating the Definition. There is no problem in using lots of verbs as well, but you have to keep in mind that a Definition of Done is a description of what is expected from the final product, not a to-do list.
Mistake #2: Aiming for perfection
While Definitions of Done should be specific and detailed, avoid perfectionism at all costs. If you are aiming to create something perfect, you may never get to be Done. To avoid that, start by focusing on what’s required to create a minimally functional, initial product and then use later project phases for improving it and refining the not so important details.
This advice is especially relevant for projects that can be easily edited or fixed after finished, like an online article. While you want to review your article thoroughly before publishing it, it is probably not the end of the world if a small typo goes unnoticed when you first share your piece with the world — you can quickly fix it after it has been published.
Mistake #3: Not allowing flexibility
Although you should strive to create a Definition of Done that won’t need modifications down the road, you should not consider it as set in stone. Things change with time, new requirements arise, clients change their minds. If your requirements change, you can and should update your Definition of Done. Nevertheless, just like before, all people involved in the project must work together in that process and agree with any modifications.
A Small Example: Writing this Article
As an example (actually, a meta-example), I will show the Definition of Done I’ve established for my project of writing this article. Below you will find the minimum requirements I defined for it:
- The article needs to concisely explain what a Definition of Done is.
- It needs to discuss the importance of establishing Definitions of Done, both for large and for small projects.
- It needs to provide actionable advice on how to use this strategy.
- It needs to contain at least one example of a Definition of Done.
- The article should feature a nice title image that is somehow related to the article, with an appropriate source citation.
- It must have been checked thoroughly for spelling mistakes, typos, and grammatical errors.
- Its formatting needs to look good both on my laptop and on my phone.
- When I read it out loud, it should not contain any sentences that sound weird to me.
If you are reading this, it means that at some point I’ve judged that my draft matches all the requirements above and decide to click “Publish”.
“Definition of Done” is a strategy that is simple to understand and actually easy to apply. While it is mostly known for being widely applied in the software industry as part of the Scrum framework, I believe that it can be beneficial for projects in all different areas, even if Scrum is not being used for the project’s planning and execution.
When creating a Definition of Done, all people involved in the project need to work together until they reach an agreement on what it means for the project or project phase to be really Done. After its end is explicitly defined, it gets much easier to plan the project execution and to make sure that it is always moving forward in the desired direction.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.
- Scrum — The Art of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time, by Jeff Sutherland.
- Walking Through a Definition of Done, at Scrum.org.
- The Scrum Guide.
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