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Questioning the Retrospective Prime Directive

Over supper one night, a group of senior practitioners found themselves comparing notes on how they use (or don't use) the Retrospective Prime Directive with teams. Professor and writer Philippe Kruchten kicked it off, sceptical that it's really possible to say  "...we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job..." It was such an interesting conversation that Linda Rising, with permission, wrote it up in this InfoQ article. Rising and others, including Esther Derby, Norm Kerth, and Mary Poppendieck joined the fray, relating their best and worst experiences using this tool with teams.

The "Prime Directive" is intended to create a safe environment in which team members are free to examine their processes and tools without fear of anyone laying blame with individuals. It comes from Norman Kerth's book, and website on Project Retrospectives, and it says:
"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."
The conversation began when Kruchten challenged this:
Really? I have met subversive, obnoxious, really destructive people during my career as a developer and consultant. In most cases, I could not do much about them. Work around or without them. ... Just saying that I "truly believe," is not acceptable to me.
This challenge resonates: how can we possibly use this practice when the top execs in our organization are under investigation for fraud? Or when everyone knows there's a slacker or malicious malcontent on the team?

Rising's response:
The Prime Directive is not about reality. It's about enabling the brain to focus elsewhere, just for a short time, in order to maximize learning... I know that when I ask people to "sign up" for the Prime Directive, they are thinking exactly what you are thinking, and that's OK. They are just pretending for a short time, but it's enough to put those judgments aside so that the team can learn.
Owen Rogers: took me a while to get it. The impression that I got from reading Norm's book is that it was just something that you just read at the start of a retrospective -- like an incantation. I tried it a couple of times but no magic. So I abandoned it. ... it requires more than just reading it out. You really need to have a discussion with the participants about what it means before the lights come on.
Consultant Ainsley Nies, who spent many years teaching and running retrospectives at HP, suggests taking the Prime Directive out of the meeting room and back to one's desk or home - as a helpful context for personal reflection:
Remember to apply the Prime Directive to yourself! In my Personal Retrospective Workshop we discuss how our futures are greatly influenced by how we talk about ourselves and our experiences ... many folks noting that they are more likely to apply generous interpretation to others than to themselves, and ultimately how this affects their work.
Read the entire conversation on InfoQ: Questioning the Retrospective Prime Directive by author and teacher Linda Rising.

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