Understanding the Definition of Done: What it Means and Why it Matters

November 27, 2023


ICAgile Team

Picture it: a room full of developers, each with their own idea of what a "finished" product looks like. They start coding, but they're like a ship without a rudder. How will they know when the product is done? 

One developer argues that it’s when all the features are implemented. Another says, “When it's bug-free.” The rest just shrug their shoulders. If only the team had established a set of criteria for when the product is finished. Agreeing on a Definition of Done (DoD) would have saved them countless headaches, miscommunications, and re-work.

What Is a Definition of Done?

For agile teams, a Definition of Done identifies the criteria that a task, feature, or user story must meet to be considered complete. It serves as a guide, clarifying the work the team needs to complete and creating a shared understanding among the team and stakeholders.

The Definition of Done can also identify functional, technical, and non-functional requirements, making it easier for teams to create high-quality products.

Who Creates the Definition of Done?

The product owner, product manager, development team, and Scrum Master all work together during sprint planning to create the Definition of Done. Creating a Definition of Done is a collaborative effort because each person on the team has specialized knowledge to contribute. If more than one team is working on the product release, then all teams must agree on what "Done" means.

The product owner plays a crucial role in completing the Definition of Done by ensuring alignment with stakeholders and business goals. The development or technical team then provides their specialized expertise to determine detailed criteria. The Scrum Master facilitates collaboration by identifying and resolving ambiguities in the definition. In sum, the entire agile team is responsible for a well-defined, easily understood Definition of Done.

How to Create a Definition of Done

Here’s how to create a Definition of Done (DoD):

  1. Assemble the team for comprehensive discussions about customer needs and the product or project requirements.
  2. Collaboratively identify specific criteria including functional, technical, and quality standards.
  3. Involve other teams and stakeholders to ensure cross-team collaboration and alignment.
  4. Document the defined criteria. Keep it concise for easy understanding.
  5. Seek continuous improvement by regularly reviewing and refining the DoD.

When Is the Definition of Done Created?

The Definition of Done is created by the team during sprint planning. The goal is to create shared understanding before the sprint begins.

During sprint planning, the team will define specific criteria and actions for each user story or product increment. Ideally, this ensures consistent quality throughout the project.

Common Pitfalls

It’s sometimes challenging for team members and stakeholders to agree on the Definition of Done (DoD). Team members have diverse perspectives and different levels of experience, which influences how they view the Definition of Done. Lack of communication, time constraints, and a lack of clarity can also pose challenges. Here are some other common pitfalls:

  • Overlooking Criteria: When people are rushing to write a DoD, they sometimes miss essential criteria. This can result in unfinished or subpar work, customer dissatisfaction, and/or rework. Team members need time to identify the DoD.
  • Obsessing Over Details: Spending too much time on the DoD can also be a problem. Excessive nitpicking and fine-tuning slows down the process. Teams need to balance quality without getting lost in minor details.
  • Feature-Specific Criteria: Individual features may have unique criteria or dependencies. It’s important that team members explicitly identify these issues to avoid confusion and disagreement during the sprint.
  • Lack of Sprint Retrospectives: In order to keep improving, teams should conduct sprint retrospectives on a regular basis. Retrospectives allow the team to identify opportunities to improve their ability to write a DoD.

Definition of Done vs Acceptance Criteria

The Definition of Done is a set of criteria that determines when a task or project is considered complete. It outlines the minimum requirements that must be met for a deliverable to be considered a shippable product. The Definition of Done also sets quality measures to ensure consistency across different features and user stories.

In contrast, Acceptance Criteria are specific to each user story or feature. They outline the specific conditions or functionalities that need to be satisfied for the user story to be accepted by the project stakeholders. 

The Definition of Done ensures that all work meets a baseline standard, while Acceptance Criteria provides a more detailed list of specific requirements unique to each aspect of the project.

Definition of Done in the Organization

In crafting the Definition of Done, it's crucial to understand how the criteria varies across different levels of management, specifically at the team, program, and portfolio levels.

Team Level

At the team level, the Definition of Done is grounded in the work of individual agile teams. For a software development team, the Definition of Done might include criteria such as successful unit testing, code reviews, and the completion of user documentation. 

For a marketing team, the Definition of Done could involve creating all necessary promotional materials, ensuring they align with brand guidelines, and conducting a thorough review to guarantee accuracy.

Program Level

At the program level, the Definition of Done includes the integration of work from multiple teams. The scope extends to the seamless collaboration of features and the comprehensive testing of the whole system.

The program-level Definition of Done might involve validating end-to-end scenarios, and checking for conflicts or issues arising from the integration of various team projects. 

For a marketing program, the program level Definition of Done could include validating that social media messages align with the overall content strategy, design elements are consistent across various platforms, and analytics tools are accurately tracking the campaign’s success.

Portfolio Level

A portfolio-level Definition of Done covers the entire organization. The criteria at this level transcends the technical aspects and delves into strategic alignment, customer satisfaction, and overall business value. 

The portfolio Definition of Done might include achieving specific business objectives, meeting predetermined customer satisfaction targets, and ensuring that all projects contribute to achieving the organization's strategic goals. In essence, a portfolio-level Definition of Done ensures that the collective efforts of teams and programs align with the objectives of the entire organization.

Learn more about creating a Definition of Done, plus other key skills for product owners in ICAgile’s Agile Product Ownership course.

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Value Delivery, Agile Fundamentals, Business Agility Foundations, Product Ownership, Agile Product Ownership

About the author

ICAgile Team