What’s wrong with the Retrospective Prime Directive?

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 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.

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