What are you defining as „Done“?

Agility is why most organizations adopt Scrum.

The actual agility an organization achieves is rooted in how sophisticated Scrum is being employed. Beyond the mere adoption of Scrum, enterprise agility is much accelerated if the organization re-emerges its structures around Scrum. With re-vers-ify I remind people that structures need to be re-imagined, rather than predicted or copied, often upon re-imagining Scrum.

Through Scrum, teams and organizations create, deliver, maintain and evolve great products and services. Through Scrum, teams and organizations create the opportunity of potentially releasing a version of product no later than by the end of each Sprint, where a Sprint takes no more than 4 weeks, and often less. This provides an organization with foundational agility, the potential to thrive on its market, while creating a motivating working environment.

The state of an Increment of product by the end of a Sprint is named “Done” in Scrum.

In order for everyone to understand what “Done” means, teams have a definition of Done in place. The definition of Done holds the shared understanding of what it means for work to be complete, and ensures transparency over the completeness of the work.

At several points in time this provides crucial clarity:

  • When forecasting work deemed feasible for a Sprint.
  • When assessing whether work on Product Backlog items and the product Increment is complete.
  • Progress of development throughout a Sprint.
  • When considering the opportunistic value of the product functionality offered in the Increment (not having to turn the inspection into a quality interrogation).

Without a definition of Done, Scrum cannot be applied effectively.

Ideally, a professional organization defines quality requirements to be incorporated into a product. Regardless, Scrum professionals adhere to an appropriate definition of Done. Always. No undone work is part of the Increment. No undone work is put into production. Ever. Meanwhile committed professional teams keep looking for ways to improve product quality as reflected in the definition of Done.

Many teams across the world seem to be unable to create actually releasable Increments of product. Code is entered, and potentially tested, within a team. But the actual Increment remains scattered and hidden in long-lived branches. Or the work delivered at the end of a Sprint still needs to be integrated with fellow product teams. Or -even worse- it is to be shipped to different departments for that purpose. In those cases Scrum reveals important information over critical organisational impediments that prevent the teams from creating actually releasable versions of product. There is a substantial amount of “Undone Time”, the time it takes to go from an undone piece of work to a Done Increment. This time impedes the agility that the organisation desperately needs. It kills the option of opportunistic releases.

The purpose of a Sprint in Scrum is not to just result in a piece of work that can be shipped to another team, functional group or department. An Increment is expected to be in a useable condition, ready for production. When released, nothing breaks. No unpredictable amounts of open work accumulate in the system, waiting to be handled at some unknown point in time, meanwhile corrupting everybody’s understanding of the progress and quality. The actual release decision depends on how useful the product is, a decision that lies with the Product Owner, the sole representative of users and stakeholders to the Development Team(s).

At least an Increment is integrated across teams and systems to have it in a production-deployable state. Most often teams define as “Done” all the development activities (of which in general a lot of testing) to be performed to consider an Increment as “Releasable”.

Imagine however any non-software industry. Can you imagine ‘quality’ being expressed in terms of the machines, tools and practices to be used? Is this not ‘how’ to create quality, but not a definition of quality?

Quality is defined through the characteristics of a product.

Quality is in the qualities that a product should exhibit. A “Done” product in Scrum is not just a product on which rigorously proper development standards were applied, and therefore can be released. A “Done” product is a product that exhibits your organization’s definition of product qualities.

Valuable Increments are at the heart of Scrum, as I already indicated in my book “Scrum – A Pocket Guide” (2013).

Shifting the balance toward creating Valuable Increments is truly enacting Scrum, and living by the highest Agile principle:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software (bold-indication by me).

A framework within which people can address complex adaptive problems, while productively and creatively delivering products of the highest possible value (bold-indication by me).

So, do you have a definition of Done? If so, what are you defining as “Done”? Is it ‘Releasable’, or ‘Valuable’? Is every Increment you create valuable? Why not? Does your Scrum Master know? Your management? And what are you doing about it?


A Professional Organization Defines Quality

An often observed problem of Scrum adoptions is the isolated way that Scrum Teams operate, being or acting as if detached from the wider organization. There are several possible causes, one of them being the disconnect between people creating standards and people implementing upon those standards.

An organization that thrives and depends on software products and services can be expected to have a definition of product qualities in place, and to express such through standards, guidelines, rules, service levels and other expectations. Scrum Development Teams, consisting of professional product developers, are an integral part of an organization, rather than being isolated gangs of thug coders within the organization. Such Development Teams can be expected to adhere to overarching product standards.

It explains why, on the topic of the creation of a definition of Done, the Scrum Guide says (see http://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html#artifact-transparency-done):

If the definition of “done” for an increment is part of the conventions, standards or guidelines of the development organization, all Scrum Teams must follow it as a minimum. If “done” for an increment is not a convention of the development organization, the Development Team of the Scrum Team must define a definition of “done” appropriate for the product.

If, as can be expected, the minimal definition of Done is provided by the organization, a Development Team can still complement it with context-specific elements; the product, a release or technology.

If organizational guidelines are not provided, a Development Team should, as professionals, create an appropriate definition of Done for their development. How else does a team know what work to do, what tasks to undertake, if it doesn’t know, and have a shared understanding of, the characteristics of the Done or end product? How else can Product Owners and stakeholders know what quality they will be receiving? Quality should not be their concern, or their primary focus. Market reception, business opportunities, offered functionality should be.

The lack of such standards or provision of them is therefore also best raised within the organization to serve wider organizational improvement. Remember that such improvement will also benefit others within the organization.

Scrum can be a lever for organisational improvement. Scrum Master is a servant-leader role for the organization too.

Often organizations provide a list of guidelines that is presented as ‘minimal’, yet proves to be unrealistically long and heavy. This again is a great area for conversation, improvement and removal of organizational waste. The organization might have not adapted their standards and expectations to the reality of iterative-incremental development, or their standards might for a long time have not been matched against actual implementation of them. ’Standards’ might be in place that were created as part of long, sequential processes where quality problems typically accumulated heavily before they were detected. As the people maintaining standards typically do not engage in creating quality upon those standards they start adding demands to the expectations that prescribe the delivery of proof that ‘quality’ is created. They started confusing defining quality (‘what’) with evidence of quality ‘(how’).

Avoiding the conversation is not helpful. Self-organization is not an excuse to do so. A Development Team might push back toward a realistic definition of Done with arguments on how they will actually build in quality, Sprint after Sprint after Sprint. A feedback loop from practice to theory is best established. It is important, and often surprisingly revealing, for the people creating standards to experience what practical application of these standards entails, or what waste is in them when iterative-incrementally delivering versions of releasable product.

Quality, in the end, is in the product, not in paper documentation. Paper documentation allows lies and illusions of quality, working software doesn’t.

Done is a crucial part of Scrum, actually

If Scrum was to be reduced to one purpose, and one purpose only, that is the creation of a Done Increment in a Sprint. The typical term in Scrum to describe the state of software being releasable is “Done”. All that this state of releasability encompasses is captured in the “definition of Done”.

Done Increments are THE way to achieve agility through the empiricism of Scrum. 


The empiricism of Scrum, the process of regular inspection and adaptation, only functions well upon transparency. Transparency is having insights into reality but is is additionally upheld through standards and agreements, against which inspection and adaptation happens. The definition of Done is such a standard. The definition of Done is part of professional Scrum development. Other standards, like development and engineering standards, might even be derived from the definition of Done.

The frequency of the inspection and adaptation should be high enough to be able to act in the moment yet not too high to preserve the ability to get considerable amounts of work done.

The definition of Done serves empiricism

The definition of Done should be shared, explicit, clear and concise.

A Development Team will use the definition of Done to consider the amount of work to be pulled into a Sprint during Sprint Planning.

The evolution of an Increment is managed via collaborative inspection and adaption of the actual development work against the forecasted Product Backlog and the Sprint Goal; at least on a daily base, possibly sooner. A Daily Scrum assures that the people accountable for the actual development optimize their work plan against new insights and achievements. The definition of Done supports identification of work remaining to get the software to “Done”.

No later than at the Sprint Review, the Increment is collaboratively inspected and adapted with the stakeholders. This inspection opens up the opportunity of incorporating feedback from these stakeholders to identify what is most important to do next. Purpose is the open identification of what is important to do next, not hindered by unknown, unpalatable, unestimatable remaining work.

Releasing the software closes the feedback loop to the market and the users of the software. Releasing sooner is better in order to remain in line with external expectations and experiences. It is the only way to ultimately validate all assumptions (of functionality, and others) built into the product. Not being able to release an Increment at the end of a Sprint, or sooner, impedes agility. The decision of releasing an Increment by the end of a Sprint is a Product Owner decision, as the sole representative of users and stakeholders on the Scrum Team. The Product Owner’s shipping decision should not be constrained by ‘development’ work.

Undone software is best not released. There might be situations in which undone software is consciously released. An extreme crisis maybe? The least to do is make the undone work transparent via Product Backlog, knowing and understanding that any estimate of such corrective work is probably totally off and the nature of the work unplannable. This ‘registration’ does not render an undone release any more professional, and probably the crisis you are hoping to solve with the unrelease, will re-appear because an unrelease will not fundamentally solve it. Unreleases backfire. Probably better to Scrumble.

At the Sprint Retrospective, the Development Team might inspect and revise its definition of Done; incorporating new insights, new expectations, higher standards. Ownership over the Definition of Done lies with the Development Team. It is their accountability to develop software that lives up to the definition of Done. In many organizations the definition of Done is likely to be derived from organizational standards for development quality. A Development Team will enact them, expand them. If “done” for an increment is not a convention of the development organization, the Development Team will create their definition of Done, appropriate for the product.

Regardless, the definition of Done provides transparency over the state of an Increment at the Sprint Review, where this state optimally reflects ‘releasable’.

Done is a crucial part of Scrum, actually

Although no official artifact, the definition of Done is a crucial part of Scrum in upholding transparency over the state of releasability of the software created. No transparency means no meaningful inspections, and no meaningful adaptations of Product Backlog through stakeholder feedback upon review or through user feedback upon release.

In the last updates to the Scrum Guide (most recent: July 2013) the definition of Done was given considerably more attention. Rightfully, as “Done” is absolutely crucial in Scrum.

Here’s how I stressed the importance of Done in my book, “Scrum – A Pocket Guide“:

The empiricism of Scrum only functions well with transparency. Transparency requires common standards to work against and to inspect upon. The definition of done sets the standard for releasable.


The definition of done is essential to fully understand the work needed to create a releasable Increment and for the inspection of that Increment at the Sprint Review. The definition of done serves the transparency required in Scrum in terms of the work to be done and the work actually done.

Releasable in Scrum, actually

Scrum asks for a releasable Increment of product to be available ultimately by the end of every Sprint. A Sprint takes no more than 30 days, and is often shorter. A releasable Increment might be available sooner than by the end of a Sprint, not later.

The purpose of this rule of Scrum is to provide the Product Owner with the opportunity of bringing an updated, improved version of product to market every 1-4 weeks, or more frequent. It is how Scrum implements the first principle of Agile software development:

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software. (source: Principles of Agile Software Development)

Replacing the past wording of ‚shippable‘ by ‚releasable‘ reduced the room to avoid the rigor of releasing to the market frequently, but just shipping an Increment within the organization, the avoidance that abates the benefits and agility needed. The Scrum Guide adds the prefix ‚potentially’, to clarify that Scrum does not say that every Increment must be released. I prefer to leave this prefix out, because ‚releasable‘ in itself is clear enough. Otherwise “Released” would be required as the Increment’s state by the end of the Sprint.

Scrum lays the actual release decision with the Product Owner, as the representative of all (i.e. internal and external) stakeholders. The Product Owner’s decision is not to be limited by technical or engineering aspects. The product Increment is useable. If released, it does not break. That is the accountability of the Development Team. The Product Owner is accountable for assessing whether the Increment is functionally useful.

The Development Team consists of professionals who do the work of delivering a potentially releasable Increment of “Done” product at the end of each Sprint. Only members of the Development Team create the Increment. (…) This Increment is useable, so a Product Owner may choose to immediately release it. (Source: The Scrum Guide)

A Product Owner, being an entrepreneur, understands that no release means no feedback from the market place, no feedback from actual product usage. It means no validation of the assumptions built into the product, reduced learning, postponement of much anticipated improvements. In a way, it blindfolds development.

If a Product Owner decides to release an Increment, it is released. Preferably instantly. No additional work remains to do so. All work that mirrors ‘releasable’ is captured in a definition of Done. Defining “Done” creates transparency:

  • Transparency when forecasting work deemed feasible for a Sprint
  • Transparency when inspecting an Increment
  • Transparency over development progress
  • Transparency regarding the daily work required to have the software in a state of Done

Scrum, as a framework, can wrap various development strategies that increase the capability of creating a releasable (“Done”) version of product in a Sprint; pair programming, test-driven development, ATDD, BDD, Continuous Integration, DevOps, Continuous Delivery, Continuous Deployment. (note: Scrum promoting the Product Owner as the gatekeeper to release might influence how Continuous Deployment is organized.) Feature toggling is certainly an architectural choice that enables higher Product Owner dynamism.

Software being releasable, no later than by the end of a Sprint, is Scrum’s gateway to (business) agility. By the end of every Sprint, or sooner, an updated, improved product can be released to its users and consumers. Feedback can then be gathered to be incorporated into the Product Backlog, and ordered against all other product ambitions.

In Scrum, actually… releasable means all work done to release to the market. Instantly.

The importance of Done in Scrum

In the last Scrum Guide (July 2011) the definition of Done was given considerably more attention. Rightfully, as “Done” is crucial in Scrum.

The Importance Of Done

The definition of Done is essential to fully understand the Increment that is being inspected at the Sprint Review with the stakeholders. The definition of Done implements the expectation of an Increment to be ‘releasable‘, so ideally it is comprised of all activities, tasks, qualities and work that allow releasing an Increment in production. The addition ‘potentially‘ to releasable refers to the Product Owner’s accountability to decide over the actual release of an Increment; a decision that will likely be based upon business cohesion and functional usefulness. But the Product Owner’s shipping decision should not be constrained by ‘development’ work.

The definition of Done should be clear and concise for the Scrum Team as it will determine how much work a Development Team can reasonably take in into a Sprint during the Sprint Planning meeting.

The empiricism of Scrum only functions well upon transparency. That includes the definition of Done. Transparency means not only visible, but also understandable. Besides being available, the content of the definition of Done should be clear by just reading it.

A New Scrum Artefact?

Should we make the Definition of Done an official Scrum artefact?

It would seem like adapting Scrum to reality, a mere formalization of an existing practice; because it is extremely important to put quality even more at the heart of what we do; because we want to clear out that little grey zone in the base Scrum framework allowing some people to doubt the formal need of a definition of Done. With regards to the latter, it would provide additional guidance for people and organizations to improve, and investigate the next steps on the cobblestone path to Agility, although probably not the guarantee hoped for by making it a mandatory artefact.

All existing Scrum artefacts support the ‘inspect & adapt cycles of Scrum; they provide accurate, up to date and transparent information to be inspected and adapted at the rhythm of the Scrum events (or sooner). In that sense, Done is already an artefact; it is in the Increment, making the state of the Increment transparent.

I suggest to formally include inspection of the Definition of Done at the Sprint Review, along the inspection of the working Increment, which it is a characteristic of. This pair-wise inspection serves to get feedback and input from the stakeholders that goes beyond mere functionality and business requirements. It will invoke a collaborative conversation over quality, and requirements with regards to the quality of working software in the organization.

The Sprint Review is also the time to inspect the current state of Product Backlog, i.e. what is now Done, what was left undone in this Sprint, what was additionally turned Done. From this current state, including the latest Velocity measurement, the actual product progress is available to the stakeholders.

I suggest to lay ownership over the definition of Done with the Development Team. A definition of Done can’t be forced upon a Development Team. Neither can it be cut short by forces outside of the Development Team. The Development Team will obviously include functional quality expectations from the Product Owner. The Development Team will obviously include general, organizational expectations and compliance (e.g. from the development or engineering organization). But it’s up to the Development Team to process it in the definition of Done. Decisions over the definition of Done will depend on the presence of skills, authorizations and availability of external systems, services and interfaces. Probably a Development Team would include stubs and simulators for non-available systems, add this to their definition of Done and make the impact of these dependencies clear to the Product Owner for ordering the Product Backlog. The effect on the planning horizon will no longer only be clear to the stakeholders by inspection of the Product Backlog at the Sprint Review, but also via explicit inspection of the definition of Done accompanying the working Increment.

The inspection of the working Increment and the definition of Done at the Sprint Review, and the related collaboration of the Scrum Team with the stakeholders, will provide the Development Team with important information to sustain, evolve and grow the definition of Done. They will probably have a deeper conversation over it at the Sprint Retrospective. The self-organizing drive of the Development Team will include all that’s actually possible, dig deeper, taking into account the feedback from the stakeholders, and evolve it as part of their continuous improvement of quality.

This ownership is comparable to the Product Backlog ownership. The Product Owner has accountability over it. But it won’t withhold the Product Owner from taking into account the technical and development input from the team. It won’t withhold the Product Owner from taking into account dependencies, non-functionals and organizational expectations. And after all, the frequent inspection of a working Increment provides information on reality to all involved so they can incorporate that in their work via their accountability.

A Desirable Side-effect

Although the goal is not to promote the Definition of Done to a Scrum artefact (as shown that is not needed), I do see an optional side-effect in explicitly inspecting it at the Sprint Review: additional transparency to the overall agile adoption.

Obviously the definition of Done will not always immediately, from day 1 of the adoption of Scrum, hold every possible task, activity or requirement to render every Increment completely production-ready. There will be a gradual evolution in applying Scrum. This is good as it helps all players continuously exploit the possible to a maximum extent.

Promoting inspection of the definition of Done with the stakeholders will help identify improvement areas in capturing enterprise agility. The finding of what is/is not included provides an indication on involvement of the broader organization in agile product development, even of organizational impediments. And stakeholders, in consultation with Product Owner and Scrum Master, might want to act on these from a management change perspective.

In a transformational period, including the definition of Done as an explicit artefact in the Scrum framework will help people and organizations in the software industry to… improve from better and more realistic insights.