Unrealistic definition of done

Last updated on June 15th, 2021 at 02:56 pm

Many an enterprise culture includes, perhaps tacitly, an unrealistic definition of done. When an enterprise culture assumes a definition of done for projects that excludes—or fails to adequately acknowledge—attributes related to sustainability of deliverables, technical debt expands inexorably. In most organizations, the definition of done for projects includes meeting the attributes that most internal customers understand and care about. These attributes might not include sustainability [Guo 2011]. Indeed, even among technologists, the definition of done might not enjoy precise consensus [Wake 2002].

The 2009 Ford Focus SES coupe (North America) engine bay
The 2009 Ford Focus SES coupe (North America) engine bay. Gone are the days when typical owners could learn how to maintain their own vehicles. Engines have become so complex that even experienced mechanics must be trained to maintain engines with which they’re unfamiliar. Since these vehicles are being offered for sale to consumers, clearly their manufacturers regard their designs as “done.” But is technical debt a factor in the growing complexity of modern motor vehicle engines? It’s probably present in their software, and it would be most surprising if we found no technical debt in the mechanical design. Photo (cc) Porsche997SBS courtesy Wikimedia.

Because attributes related to sustainability of deliverables are less well understood by internal customers—indeed, by nearly everyone—it is perhaps unsurprising that sustainability might not receive the attention it needs. Applying scarce resources to enhance attributes the customer doesn’t understand, and cares about less, will always be difficult.

To gain control of technical debt, we must redefine done to include addressing sustainability of deliverables. Although there may be many ways to accomplish this, none will be easy. Resolution will involve, inevitably, educating internal customers so that they understand enough about sustainability to enable them to justify paying for it.

The typical definition of done for most projects ensures only that the deliverables meet the requirements. Because requirements usually omit reference to retiring newly incurred nonstrategic technical debt, projects are often declared complete with incremental technical debt still in place. A similar problem prevails with respect to legacy technical debt.

A more insidious form of this problem is intentional shifting of the definition of done. This happens when the organization has adopted a reasonable definition of done that allows for addressing sustainability, but under severe time pressure, the definition is “temporarily” amended to allow the team to declare the effort complete, even though sustainability issues remain unaddressed.

For most projects, three conditions conspire to create steadily increasing levels of nonstrategic technical debt. First, for most tasks, the definition of done is that the deliverables meet the project objectives, or at least, they meet them well enough. Second, typical project objectives don’t restrict levels of newly incurred nonstrategic technical debt, nor do they demand retirement of incidentally discovered legacy technical debt. Third, budget authority usually terminates upon acceptance of delivery. These three conditions, taken together, restrain engineering teams from immediately retiring any debt they incur and from retiring—or documenting or reporting—any legacy technical debt they encounter while fulfilling other requirements.

For example, for one kind of incremental technical debt—what Fowler calls [Fowler 2009] Inadvertent/Prudent (“Now we know how we should have done it”)—the realization that debt has been incurred often occurs after the task is “done.” If budget authority has terminated, there are no resources available—financial or human—to retire that form of technical debt.

Unless team members document the technical debt they create or encounter, after they move on to their next assignments, the enterprise is likely to lose track of the location and nature of that debt. A more realistic definition of done would enable the team to continue working post-delivery to retire, or at least document, any newly incurred nonstrategic technical debt or incidentally encountered legacy technical debt. Moreover, strategic technical debt—technical debt incurred intentionally for strategic reasons—is also often left in place. Although it, too, must be addressed eventually, the widespread definition of done doesn’t address it.

Policymakers are well positioned to advocate for the culture transformation needed to redefine done.


[Fowler 2009] Martin Fowler. “Technical Debt Quadrant.” Martin Fowler (blog), October 14, 2009.

Available here; Retrieved January 10, 2016.

Cited in:

[Guo 2011] Yuepu Guo, Carolyn Seaman, Rebeka Gomes, Antonio Cavalcanti, Graziela Tonin, Fabio Q. B. Da Silva, André L. M. Santos, and Clauirton Siebra. “Tracking Technical Debt: An Exploratory Case Study,” 27th IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance (ICSM), 2011, 528-531.

Cited in:

[Wake 2002] Bill Wake. “Coaching Drills and Exercises,” XP123 Blog, June 15, 2002.

Available: here

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