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The Evolving Definition of "Done"

careers jason orloske pmo project management strategy Jan 04, 2022
The Evolving Definition of

"We're more concerned about meeting customer needs than defining done."

For years, I have defined "Done" as a clearly articulated definition of the output of a project. Simple enough. The project has scope. It's my job to lead a team to deliver that scope. That scope is delivered, and now it's time to move on to the next project.

But over the past couple years, I've had a change of heart in what "Done" means. 

In early 2020, businesses had to pivot as COVID moved everyone into stay-at-home mode. Many projects pivoted, also. Then in 2021 as things started opening back up, pent up demand moved customers to buy. Businesses again were trying to pivot to meet consumer demand while balancing supply chain woes. As project professionals, many of our projects, and the way we support organizations, again had to pivot. "Done" became a moving target for many projects.

When trying to deliver projects, especially those in rapidly changing environments, "Done" quickly turns from a stake in the ground to a piece of straw in the sand on a beach near the desert. Projects may be released early with minimal features to "just get it out there," or delayed until additional features can be added. 

That's why a couple weeks ago was very intriguing. When talking with a business owner, I inquired about one of their 2021 initiatives that was coming to a close. I asked if they had defined "Done" clearly up front. She laughed.

"We're more concerned about meeting customer needs than defining done. If we locked ourselves down on the front end, we would've missed out on an opportunity we uncovered along the way."

For her, "Done" was less about clearly defining the end result, and more about how it competes in the market, solves a problem, or meets a customer need. Done is subjective, open to interpretation, evolving, and iterative. Done isn't just about the output, but the outcome. It's not a thing, but a result. It's a solution.

But how do stakeholders respond if Done is abstract and not concrete? They want to know what they're getting for their investment of people, time and money, don't they? 

My answer is IT DEPENDS! Some stakeholders will be OK with it, others won't. If a stakeholder works in a rapidly changing environment, they will probably be more understanding and still commit to project success. Those larger programs or more established companies may not be. If Done is a moving target, the stakeholder conversations could get challenging.

What is Done? Is it a clearly articulated deliverable, or something less tangible? Is it based on meeting a customer or market need, solving a problem, or iterative as more is learned? I don't have an answer and it also depends on the company, culture, and environment they work in. Done may be a clearly defined deliverable. It may also be iterative as it strives to meet a customer need.

How do you define DONE?