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It’s “Almost Done”

almost done kanban scrum board

Anthony Mersino

September 20, 2019

8:45 AM

Article at a glance
    • “Almost done” is a misleading state, often indicating work is in progress but not close to completion.
    • This optimistic view stems from the planning fallacy and a desire to over-achieve, rather than focusing on Minimal Viable Product (MVP).
    • Transitioning from waterfall to agile approaches can highlight this issue, as teams tend to claim items are almost done without meeting the actual definition of done.
    • Instead of using “almost done,” teams should establish a clear definition of done, reduce work-in-progress (WIP), and break large tasks into smaller, manageable items for more accurate progress tracking.

When I hear that something is “almost done”, I get worried.

You see, almost done is not done. It is started or underway. It may even be not started but reported as almost done to pacify someone. But to be clear, it is not done.

Almost done is a state of hopefulness. It is somewhere between “not started” and “done”, and we would like to believe it is close to done. Yay, we think, we have made some progress and we are almost there.

Why we Like to Use Almost Done

Almost done represents optimism and hope. We are communicating to others that we are nearly there! Woohoo.

But that is misleading.

Similar to the % complete situation. When we are asked to guestimate what % complete we are, we often do it very poorly.

Unfortunately, almost done is rarely close to being done. Almost done might represent the 90% done we use to use for progress reporting. Anyone familiar with technology projects know that the first 90% of the work is the easiest portion. In fact, there is a rule about software development called the Ninety-ninety attributed to Tom Cargill:

The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.

Wikipedia, Ninety-nine rule

Consider also these examples of almost done, where the work remaining at the end is some of the very hardest part:

  • Doctoral Thesis – I am almost done with my Doctoral Thesis; my research is done and now I just need to do the writing. Wait, what?
  • Bears vs. Vikings September 29, 2019 – Kicker Eddy Pineiro is the guy the Chicago Bears call in when they have a 4th down and a touchdown is “almost done”. Yep that’s right, the Bears will have to kick a field goal instead of getting the touchdown to “done”, 3 out of 4 times.  Photo source: https://chicago.suntimes.com/bears/2019/9/29/20890597/bears-k-eddy-pineiro-goes-3-for-3-on-bad-knee-with-minimal-practice-work-injury-raiders

a Field Goal is almost done for a touch down

  • 26.2 Mile Marathon – Anyone who has run a marathon knows that most runners hit a wall at some point in the 26.2 race. For me, that wall was often at about the 19 or 20 mile marker. Though we are “almost done”, the reality is that our bodies feel spent and want to shut down. As you can see in the picture below, at mile 19 I am almost done but the hardest part of the marathon is still in front of me.26.2 Mile Marathon

Part of the reason for the optimistic view of almost done is due to the planning fallacy, the tendency to grossly underestimate the time required to complete a future task.

Another factor is the lack of MVP, or the desire to gold plate the development. Rarely are the initiatives in the backlog small features that can be easily finished. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, says to use early and small, vs. large and late.

Why Almost Done is a Problem

I encounter almost done most frequently when I am working with teams that are transitioning from waterfall to agile ways of working. We will typically meet with them prior to training and sprinting to understand their work in progress and help convert that WIP to backlog items for the Scrum team to work on.

In most cases, every individual has a list of things that are in progress. Some have 5 or 6 items. And everyone says that their items are “almost done”. In fact, they will almost always tell me that they will get them done before the time they get training and begin sprinting.

Except that they never do.

And even in the case where they do tell me they got it done, it usually doesn’t represent “done” according to the team’s newly developed definition of done. Usually it just means that someone coded it, and maybe they tested it. Or maybe they didn’t test it – I have worked with clients whose developers never completed unit tests. Yes unfortunately in 2018, we still have developers who think that testing is optional.

So when we go to start the first sprint, the team fesses up that though the items are still “almost done”, they didn’t make as much progress as they had hoped. So the status of the item is still “almost done” and we need to include those items in the first sprint. Against my caution, they put many of those items into the first sprint because after all, they are almost done.

And then those same items don’t get done in the first sprint, for a variety of reasons. It seems that almost done is almost never very close to done.

What do Do Instead of Calling Items “Almost Done”

You can and should avoid calling things “almost done”. Here are some specific steps you can take:

  • Get Binary – I strongly urge teams to be super clear about what done means and things are either done or not done. Granted, some teams use three states – not started, in progress and done. But the first two both represent “not done”.
  • Create a Team Definition of Done – Part of the challenge with Almost Done is that it usually doesn’t mean “done done” in Agile terms. And it may be consistent from developer to developer. Take the time to agree as a team what done means. And where possible, Done for your team should mean that it is in production and working for the requestor, or as close to that state as possible.
  • Stop Using Hope as a Planning Tool – We have to eliminate the wishful thinking. Working in small sprints helps us to quickly learn about our estimates and get work to done.
  • Reduce WIP – Almost done is usually always code for lots of WIP. Lots of WIP means that little is actually getting done.
  • Mark the items as Not Started – A more accurate way to represent your WIP is to just change the state from Almost Done to Not Started. After all, Almost Done means that someone will have to go in and learn exactly what has been done and then figure out what remains. It is usually more difficult than just starting with a blank sheet of paper.
  • Break those Items Down into Smaller Items – With large items in WIP, getting to done is difficult and unpredictable. By breaking large items down into smaller ones, we can make progress on them daily and show progress toward completion.

Daria Bagina does an excellent job of dissecting the reason for getting to done in this excellent video, Done or not Done, there is no ‘almost’. She also incorporates the updates from the 2020 Scrum Guide. Check it out here:

What are your thoughts about calling something “almost done”?

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