Remember being in school and completing an exam for which you studied and prepared? Putting your pencil down and turning in your exam paper felt good, like you had met a milestone.

It’s not always easy to know when something is complete and done.

On the other hand, you may have experienced exams where time ran out before you could finish everything. You had to turn in your exam, and it probably felt terrible to know you weren’t finished.

Knowing what “done” looks and feels like is important. In fact, you should consider it a skill worthy of any leadership development program. The definition must be specific to the task, of course. The definition of “done” for a software bug fix is different from the definition for a quarterly report or publication of a blog post, for example. But being able to define “done” will help you lead better and will help your teams be more productive too.

What Happens When You Don’t Define “Done?”

When you and your team don’t have a definition of what “done” looks like, everyone will naturally apply their own assumptions to the definition. One person may consider the quarterly report to be done when it has been drafted and submitted for approval. Another may consider it done when approval is granted. Still, another team member may consider it done only when it’s been revised two or three times, submitted for approval, and archived.

This can lead to misunderstandings and potential conflicts. It can also increase the likelihood of the project or deliverable needing revision and rework. In other words, when everyone has their own idea of what it means to be done, wasted time is often a byproduct.

It’s a Definition That Requires Specifics

A definition of “done” must be specific. It shouldn’t include vague past-tense verbs like “completed” or “finished.” Rather, it should have specific verbs, such as “approved,” “delivered,” “deployed,” or “archived.”

The more specific the action words you use when defining the completion of an activity, the less room there is for confusion. Team members are more likely to stay on the same metaphorical page because the actions can only be interpreted in specific ways.

Ask Yourself This Question

If you disappeared after handing over a deliverable, would the recipient be able to take it and run with it without needing you?

Here’s one way to know when you are done with a project. Ask yourself, “If I declared this project over right this minute and had the team move onto their next project, would everything be OK?” In other words, if you handed in your deliverable and moved on to the next thing, would the recipient need anything further from you?

Naturally, there will sometimes be occasions when the recipient does need something further from you, but when you’re really “done” with your project or deliverable, that “something further” will typically be small and easily taken care of.

Benefits of Everyone Knowing What “Done” Looks Like

When you have defined “done” clearly for your team, everyone is more aligned toward the same goal. While people may have different personal definitions for “finished,” it’s much harder to misinterpret “delivered to Doris, with three copies for department heads and a fourth for archival.” With less room for misunderstanding, everyone is actually freer to do their best work, because they all know precisely what it is that they are working toward.

As a leader, your name will be associated with the projects you lead, and you want to be certain that those projects are ones you can take pride in. Defining upfront what “done” looks like for all phases of a project as well as for the project overall gives your team something more solid to bite into. It allows you to lead by using your leadership talents of communication and delegation and helps prevent slipping into unproductive practices like micromanaging.

Sometimes my leadership coaching clients have to understand that their teams can’t read their minds and that their teams don’t always see projects and completion in the same terms that they do. Working with leadership clients on communication can help tremendously with this. Helping them visualize, articulate, and define what “done” looks like helps them lead better and helps their teams perform better.

If you are interested in leadership development, I encourage you to check out my latest book, The Intelligent Leader, which will be available on October 15.


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