How should it look when it’s done?

How this simple question can help avoid frustration.
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Have you ever been disappointed when you don’t get the final OK from a client, boss, colleague, or spouse? For many of our jobs and personal commitments, someone else typically decides if the final product is good to go, or if it still needs adjustments or improvements. In other words, you’re not the final green stamp of approval. This can create frustration because you thought you were done . . . only to discover you have to go back and redo work that you thought was perfect. What if I told you that a simple question could change everything?

How should it look when it’s done?

The question “How should it look when it’s done?” is a way of asking someone to “paint done for me.” In other words, you’re asking them to clarify the criteria that will give you their blessing or green light. (If you can get it in writing, even better.) It’s a way of asking what is their version of finished and successful? But we don’t always ask this question.

Too often, we operate with an assumption of what it will look like when it’s done for ourselves. And this is simultaneously happening in the mind of your client, spouse, boss, or colleague, too. We don’t take the time to clarify, define, and get specific on the final outcome. This happens in a split second without much thought or effort — and that’s the problem.

Figuring out what “done” looks like takes a little effort and courage.

Taking time to figure out what done looks like takes a little effort, and a little courage. Productivity writer David Allen often says you have to think harder than you think, but not as hard as you might think. In other words, this thinking process DOES take effort but not as much effort as your brain thinks. Your brain is exaggerating how much time, energy, and thought must be required to clarify.

It’s easier in the short term to leave things unclarified and ambiguous. It’s easy to not ask the question because you don’t want to know the answer. It’s easy not to have to tell your boss that you can’t or aren’t energized to do that thing. It’s easy to commit to a deadline without checking your calendar or other commitments. It’s easy to say yes. It’s easy not to cause a ruckus.
It’s hard to ask a simple question because certainly you have ‘work’ to do. It’s hard to clarify expectations because what if you’re not sure you can pull it off by the proposed deadline and you look incompetent or worse . . . a failure? It’s hard to stop and think for a second because most of us are moving so fast, this behavior is uncommon.

From your own experience you also know that when you leave things a little grey and unclear, that it never ends well on the other end. You know from your own experience that you have so much more freedom to figure things out and make adjustments BEFORE it’s the final hour.

Ask the simple question and negotiate.

Consider asking the simple question “what should this look like when it’s done?”—then step back and what what happens. You may find that clear expectations are communicated. More often than not, you may find that their expectations are too much or not possible. In this position (on the front end of a project before the final hour), you have the opportunity to negotiate. You have the opportunity to disagree. You have the chance to agree on what is realistic for the time needed to complete the project based on the resources you have.

This last part is the key. In these discussions, you are setting yourself up for success, even if you can’t do what is being asked. This is your opportunity to say “while I can’t do that, I can do this.” You must be clear and up front with what you can realistically commit to based on the other circumstances and commitments in your life. Think about your family, your free time, your personal goals. Think about the other “work things” already on your plate that you’ve agreed to. Then talk with your client about what you can agree to accomplish with full energy.

Variations on the question…

  • What does done look like?
  • Paint done for me” (Brenee Brown)
  • What does success look like?
  • What does wild success look like?

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