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Agile Maturity and the Definition of Done

20 September 2017

Arthur Moore
Clear Systems LLC

Among other things, Large Scale Scrum (LeSS) supports an idea that is powerful in both its simplicity and scope — the concept of the "perfect Definition of Done." LeSS rules state that, "The perfection goal is to improve the Definition of Done so that it results in a shippable product each sprint (or even more frequently)." (Larman and Vodde, 2016)

LeSS emphasizes that we can use our Definition of Done as a measure of how well we’re doing on our road to becoming truly Agile. It is an indicator of how integrated our teams are and the extent to which they are providing rapid, end-to-end response to customer needs and market change. To navigate the road map to full agility, we can use incremental expansion as the scope of the Definition of Done.

Establishing the perfect Definition of Done

This fact becomes clearer when we look at four basic steps suggested in LeSS for defining your Definition of Done (Larman and Vodde, 2016):
  1. Establish all the actions needed to ship to end customers.
  2. Work out what can be done in a sprint.
  3. Step back and look at the "undone work" that will be left.
  4. To decrease the undone work, come up with your first incremental improvement goal for expanding the Definition of Done.
Iterating through these four steps may include incrementally coming up against some tough barriers and encompassing a lot of hard work before the perfect Definition of Done is achieved. And, in some cases, we may not get there for quite a while. But these few steps provide a powerfully simple expression of what we’re trying to achieve in terms of end-to-end product delivery. The process becomes a tool for mapping the steps needed to get there. You need, of course, to include empowerment, the elimination of hand-offs, continuous improvement, and so on. But the fact is, driving toward perfection in your Definition of Done will necessarily involve these principles and practices and help bring them into play. They represent the means by which you’ll get there.

Reasons for maturing the Definition of Done

There are a couple things I especially like about this approach to defining and maturing the Definition of Done. First, the idea is scalable because the concept applies equally well to an individual team, a set of teams working on a large product, or an entire organization. Even an individual team member can look at the current scenario and ask themselves, "Am I siloed in my work? What can I do to improve the scope of what I contribute?" At the organization level, we can ask, “What’s our cycle time to customer delivery for the entire organization? Can we broaden our Definition of Done to include measuring outcomes? Can we include our customers more deeply in the product definition, and what incremental steps can be taken in that direction?”

The second thing I like about this idea of the perfect Definition of Done as a measure of and guide to Agile maturity is that it is nonjudgmental. What I mean is that although both Scrum, as embodied in the Scrum Guide, and LeSS are clear about the goal of having a potentially releasable product every sprint, Larman and Vodde have laid out these suggested steps to creating the perfect Definition of Done in objective, nonjudgmental terms by asking:
  1. Where are you now on this scale (all the way back to your connection with the customer and looking forward to outcomes)?
  2. What can we do now to improve on that?
  3. What’s the next step we can take to get closer to the ideal?
These questions in effect say that, though not compromising on what true Agile development at scale means, the value in knowing what it should look like, and moving relentlessly toward it, we may not achieve perfection overnight. What is important is that there is an alignment on the goal, and that we are moving relentlessly in that direction. The market, along with the group’s own desire to produce and contribute, determines what pace is necessary and achievable.

Agilists would do well to familiarize themselves with the concept of the perfect Definition of Done as described in LeSS. Through this simple lens, the Agile maturity of a team, a unit, or an entire organization can be brought into focus, and the optimum road forward viewed with greater clarity.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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