Begin with the End in Mind: Defining “Done” in Every Coaching Engagement

Image of a ScrumMaster and Product Owner defining the definition of done

The definition of done is a critically important artifact in agile product development. The Scrum Guide tells us that a definition of done “creates a shared understanding of what it means for work to be complete” and, “is used to assess when work is complete” (emphasis mine). This shared understanding of what it means to be done increases transparency and alignment within the team and between the team and its stakeholders. Coaches wouldn’t think of leaving a team without a definition of done and yet, it is possible to forget the importance of defining “done” with clients in our coaching engagements.

What does it mean to begin with the end in mind?

“Beginning with the end in mind” is a principle from Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s the idea of knowing your destination before starting your journey. In his famed book, Covey writes, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”

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Why is this important?

My wife and I have a group of friends who we travel with every year. Without fail, the first thing we decide as a group is where to go. We each suggest places we’d like to go that we haven’t been to before, or that we think would be fun to visit as a group. This leads to a discussion of timing as specific locations are better to travel to at certain times of the year. And, of course, how long will we stay? Then we talk about who is going. Surely, the three couples, but what about the kids? Is this a kid-friendly vacation or a trip just for the adults? What will we do once we’re there? What attractions and activities are available? Lastly, how much will this cost us? Can we afford this trip? Is there somewhere else we’d prefer for the same cost?
These are all aspects of the vacation that must be sorted out before we book tickets and start traveling. Not only is it important to decide where to go and when we also need to understand the “why.” Why is that destination interesting to us? What is it about that place that excites us? Discussing, clarifying, and agreeing on all of these aspects of a vacation is an absolute must if we and our friends are going to have an enjoyable time vacationing together. It is no different when coaches engage in transformation with organizations.
Early in my career, I failed to create a definition of done with my clients, which led to engagements that just sort of … ended. Time was up, but no one was really sure what we had accomplished or if we had actually arrived anywhere meaningful. I’m fully confident that the organizations I worked with had grown and were better off than when we had started, but there was no clear way to show this progress. Had we taken the time at the start of the engagement to co-create the destination, both myself and my clients would have had the certainty that we had arrived.
Clearly establishing the destination as part of the coaching agreement allows the coach and client to co-create a plan that is likely to get them there. The process of creating a definition of done — coach and client together — allows both parties to understand where the client is headed, what will be gained by reaching the destination, who needs to be involved, and the approximate timeframe of the coaching engagement. 
Without a clear definition of done, it’s unclear what the most impactful interventions and changes are and when we’re done making them. Organizations still make progress, but without a clear guide to measure against, it’s difficult to say how much closer to the destination we are. As the late Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up somewhere else.”

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How to co-create an engagement agreement

Co-creating a coaching agreement can be as formal or informal as you desire. I find that asking a series of questions to drill down to the real needs of both parties works well as a starting point. For instance, coaches and clients may want to explore together:

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • What makes now the right time to solve this problem?
  • Where do we want to be in 3 months? 6 months? One year?
  • What will prevent us from getting there?
  • How will we measure success? / How will we know when we get there?

The answers to these questions allow for clarity about the destination of the engagement, focus on what needs to change, and create a sense of urgency as to why it’s critical that the organization gets there.
Once the answers to these questions are established and both parties agree to move forward with the engagement, the client’s answers form the basis for the engagement. I like to proceed as a Scrum team would — with a sprint goal and a set timebox for the sprint, so to speak. At the enterprise level, this might be a three- or six-month engagement timeframe with specific measurables and goals set that both the client and coach agree are realistic and valuable to achieve. 
The end of each timebox provides an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve come from and where we’re heading to ensure we’re still on track to get to our desired destination. Think of it as a checkpoint on our journey towards agility. Are we still on the right path? How much further do we need to go? At each checkpoint, we assess where we are in the journey towards our destination and adjust as necessary. It’s yet another opportunity to begin with the end in mind.
The effectiveness of any coaching engagement depends heavily on co-creating the desired end state with the client. Being sure that you’ve “arrived” means knowing your destination before you start. “Begin with the end in mind,” says Covey. Or as the famous Microsoft tagline states, “Where do you want to go today?”


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