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When I first started participating in and then running retrospectives we would always start our meetings, typically on a Friday afternoon, with a certain ritual. We would write down in bold letters and then read out to each other a piece of text know as the Retrospective Prime Directive created by Norman Kerth. I know many agile teams use and cherish this little ritual. However, over the years, I have grown increasingly weary of it. I tend not to use it anymore as I think it can be harmful to the goal of a retrospective.

I have had many discussions with people about the prime directive’s application, usefulness and effects. I have promised to share my thoughts in a more coherent fashion after a few email and twitter discussions on the topic with Yves.

In order to better understand the Prime Directive I decided to return to the source and read Norman Kerth’s bookProject Retrospectives: A Handbook For Team Reviews”. It turns out to be an excellent resource and on page 7 we find Kerth’s Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, give what was know at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand

BTW. Notice how often people skip the word “must” for the directive.

As I read the book I realised that the Prime Directive is really just a tool and as with any other tool is has been created to work in a certain context. Let’s try to uncover and understand this context.
Norm rightly points out that a successful and effective retrospective requires safety. Part of feeling safe means knowing that “there will be no retribution for being honest”; in other words, we’re trying to take blame off the table in order to establish trust. Other actions that Norm suggests is hiding particularly uncomfortable information discovered in preparation for a retrospective or taking managers out of the room in his “Session Without Managers” exercise. These are all sensible steps to take when you’re trying to create a learning experience in an environment which exhibits, what we could label after Bob Marshall, an analytic mindset.

Another crucial piece of context for the prime directive is that Norm used it in retrospectives that analyse 6-, 12- or even 18-months projects, last for three days and are held off-site. A three-day retrospective starts with the Prime Directive but at the end of day three it is usually nowhere to be seen because other exercises like “Emotions Seismograph”, “Repair Damage Through Play” or “Cross-Affinity Teams” have improved and maintained the feeling of safety.

My main objection to the Prime Directive however is that it explicitly pushes some issues into the undiscussable zone. We are told to believe and make ourselves believe that people acted with best intentions. This might be right most of the time but with any social interactions there will be times when a colleague annoys and hurts us in a way that affects how much we care about our job. After the prime directive is out we can no longer discuss these things. It would violate the directive. Norm is perfectly aware of this limitation. That’s why, at the end of day three, he runs an exercise called “Let The Magic Happen”. This is where the team is given an opportunity to discover any elephants in the room and bring to light issues that were so far undiscussable.

If your retrospectives last for two hours and happen every two weeks starting every single one with the Prime Directive might be the best sign that your retrospectives are not working, the team is not getting on together and that potentially the most pertinent and important problems will never be tackled.


Comments11

  1. One reason I am not a huge fan of it is because it is wishful thinking, and simply seldom true. I have usually seen it attached with a disclaimer like “ideally this would be true, so we will assume it is”.

    More correct would be a prime directive like “Regardless of what happens, we recognize that people contributed according to their biases and prejudices, their emotional state, their place in the team, their sense of self as an individual, their tastes, their goals, their values, their wills, and their political maturity”

  2. Hi Marcin,

    Thank you for taking the time to write your idea’s out.
    Thank you for pointing out the “MUST”. I make that mistake a lot. And I do, because I keep copying the text from the website http://www.retrospectives.com/pages/retroPrimeDirective.html

    Anyway I like the must.

    I disagree with: “This might be right most of the time but with any social interactions there will be times when a colleague annoys and hurts us in a way that affects how much we care about our job. After the prime directive is out we can no longer discuss these things. It would violate the directive. ”

    Why would you not be able to discuss this?

    If I use I language, I can still say:

    I am annoyed because I feel hurt in the way that situation happened.
    It’s not because I assume that people did their best, that I can not feel annnoyed.
    By using the I-language I keep it linked to my feelings.

    This particular reason, is why I use check in protocol alot.

    Yves

  3. I do wonder if 90% of the bad stuff that happens within (let’s not use the word project for a minute) a product development endeavour within a certain timeframe, is actually as a result of a lack meaningful purpose to the work involved. It is my current opinion that biases/politicking only really come out when the people involved are when they’re trying to find a reason to belong.

    In that respect, and bearing in mind the part of the directive that says “situation at hand”, I’m inclined to believe that the prime directive is actually still relevant and what we need instead is some way (other than resignation which is always an option) for people to sign themselves out of being involved in work that they find no connection with.

  4. Good post, and thanks for all the background context. It helps in understanding the original motivation behind this. The type of “retrospective” Kerth is concerned with is more commonly named (for good reason) a post mortem.

    I wrote about the prime directive here http://agileanarchy.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/the-prime-defective/ in 2010, having many similar feelings to you in its use. I offered an alternative—not a “directive”, more like a quiet meditation to precede the dialog.

  5. It may be helpful to note that the Prime Directive really doesn’t prohibit someone saying “Dave, when you said I was a fat ignorant fool, it really hurt my feelings.” What it prohibits is saying things like “Dave is trying to sabotage this project by hurting people that he dislikes.”

    The directive is about the assumption that people are always trying to do their best (sometimes their best just isn’t very good).

  6. I don’t think that the Prime Directive tells us, that if we got hurt by colleaques that we are not allowed to say this in a retrospective. It is about the way we express our selves. I can tell my colleaque that I got hurt! But in the same time I will try to understand what was the intention of my colleaque.

    The Prime directive tells me, that my colleaque did not hurt me just because he wanted to hurt me, but that there is a reason for this which I need to understand. This has nothing to do with wishful thinking. At the end, if I understood the motivation of my colleaque I don’t need to agree with this.

    Maybe have a look into non violent communication. there are the same basics applied.

  7. > My main objection to the Prime Directive however is that it explicitly pushes some issues into the undiscussable zone.

    I disagree. I think it’s an attempt (albeit a contrived and somewhat clumsy attempt) to set a positive frame for discussion. It’s so easy to take a negative view of others’ actions, especially when things are not going well.

  8. I would argue that in a strong collaborative team, there is nothing in the “undiscussable zone”. Those teams can still discuss delicate issues but still respect that everyone is as good as they can be.

  9. Pingback: Ones and Threes » Blog Archive » Retrospective Prime Directive

  10. I read this a week or so after apologising to the rest of my team for the patronising tone of the original formulation. Lots of useful thoughts here but no alternative that really hit the spot for me. For me, the essential point is that we should be able to talk about anything, and dealing with fears about blame is a secondary issue that come straight out of that. I blogged the alternative I came up with: http://www.onesandthrees.com/2012/07/retrospective-prime-directive/

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