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1.5 The Prime Directive

Some facilitators begin their retrospectives by reading out the fundamental principle, the Prime Directive. First articulated by Norman Kerth in his book, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews [1], the Prime Directive is designed to set the stage for the retrospective:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

This principle is read aloud at the beginning of a retrospective, precisely in this wording.

The idea is to make it clear to everyone that we are all human and make mistakes. The principle also points out that we shouldn’t assume that things have been done badly deliberately.

Many retrospective facilitators swear by the Prime Directive. They feel that retrospectives that don’t start with this fundamental principle are less effective and therefore less useful. Pat Kua writes [Kua 2012] that this is related to the Pygmalion [11] or Rosenthal effect, or what is commonly known as “ ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy.’ ”

The effect of a teacher’s preconceptions about his students might be an example of the Rosenthal effect. The idea is that a teacher’s positive preconception about a student (‘that student is a high achiever’) will affect the teacher’s behavior in such a way as to create confirmation of his expectations. What happens is that the teacher subtly transmits his preconception to the student through, for example, more one-to-one attention, more time given for response, frequency and strength of praise or blame, or high-performance requirements. This is an unconscious rather than deliberate course of action.

In essence, the theory is that someone who is treated as having certain characteristics will manifest them. In fact, Rosenthal’s results were repeatedly called into question and could only be reproduced in 40 percent of cases [11].

I personally believe that the success of a retrospective depends not on the careful reading out of the Prime Directive, but rather upon the values ​​that it describes. I have carried out many successful retrospectives during which I did not explicitly mention the Prime Directive. I’m not saying that reading the principle isn’t a good thing; in new teams or established teams that are about to experience their first retrospective, this ritual can have a very positive, if not measurable, effect. In my experience, however, you lose that positive effect if you read out the directive at every retrospective. Repetition does to the directive what frequent flying does to pre-flight safety briefings. The first time you fly, you pay close attention. However, with prolonged exposure, you pay less and less attention until, in the end, you hardly notice it’s happening.

A positive attitude is essential for a successful retrospective, but I believe there are many ways to achieve that attitude and the Prime Directive is only one (and one that is certainly no guarantee of success).

There is also an alternative prime directive that is somewhat longer but may work better for some teams [12]. I personally like the fact that it is written in the first person and is thus more appealing:

Some days are better than others. Some days I’m in the “flow” state, doing awesome work. Some days I come to the end of a day and realized I’ve wasted a lot of time, made mistakes that I should have foreseen, or wish I could have done something differently.

Regardless, those days have happened and our purpose here is to find out:

What can we learn from our past actions and thinking that will inform and guide our future actions and thinking so that we can do a little better?

How can we change our environment (“the system”) so that it’s easier for us to do awesome work and less likely for us for us to waste time and make mistakes?

Like the original Prime Directive, this version describes the goal of a retrospective and articulates the underlying principles. Also like the original, this alternative is just a tool and does not guarantee a successful retrospective. My advice is that you experiment with both versions and see what kind of an impact it has on your retrospectives. When properly used, the Prime Directive can be a valuable tool.

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