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Is the Agile Retrospective Prime Directive Patronizing?

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Angela Harms recently blogged about the Agile Retrospective “Prime Directive” from Norm Kerth which goes:

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

She first talks about how the intent of the Prime Directive is to avoid the propensity of assigning blame:

It gave me hope that there were folks who’d found a way to do business without relying on blame. In my experience, blame gets in the way of creativity, of learning and growing, so I’m delighted to discover people who, like me, want to build a productive work life without it.

She goes on to discuss the fact that the phrase “did the best they could” is seen by some as patronizing and disingenuous

What does it mean to “believe” that? If everyone’s doing their best all the time, what does that mean? There’s no not-best to compare it with, right?

One person may think the phrase means that everyone’s always at their peak (which can’t be true). Another says this talk of “doing their best” is naive and insulting. Someone else points out that they know they don’t always do their best, so why would they assume other people do?

She mentions Ester Derby’s discussion of the Prime Directive from 2007 where Derby discusses the various factors that can prevent us from working at peak, ranging from physical and emotional state to access to ergonomic chairs and internal air quality.

Derby concludes:

The Prime Directive doesn't mean that every person's best is good enough for the job at hand. It doesn't mean that people who aren't doing an adequate job should have a job for life. It doesn't mean that people don't need feedback, and they don't need to improve their performance if they want to remain employed. 

The Prime Directive says make a generous interpretation. Recognize that people are fallible, and their performance is variable. Don't blame them. But don't placate them either. It's about treating people with respect.

George Dinwiddie commented on Harms’ blog about his understanding of the intent behind the Prime Directive:

I’m not sure where people get the idea that “doing their best” means “at their peak.”… the peak may be beyond brief. It may be fiction. “Best possible” for a human being would have to cover so many dimensions at once. Yet both of the sentiments you quote, that it’s insulting or that one merely pretends, presume that there is some objective, context-free “best” that we can be.

I find the Prime Directive enormously useful, but only slightly so for creating a sense of safety in a retrospective.

“Beating someone up” over mistakes they’ve made, or poor performance, is very tempting but not very helpful. It’s the classic Satir blaming stance, “I’m everything and you’re nothing.” I’m right and you’re wrong.” Personally, I find it very easy to jump to that stance, and the Prime Directive helps me to notice my incongruence and change my behavior. With luck, that notice and change happens before I say anything.

Dinwiddie also wrote about the Prime Directive in 2007:

As we examine that boneheaded move that our colleague made, we want to tread very lightly so that we remain respectful of the person. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” 

• Maybe there’s some bit of knowledge or skill that our colleague is missing, and this might be easily corrected.
• Maybe there’s some perverse interaction in the way we do things that encourages things to go awry. With some root-cause analysis and systems thinking, we might be able to prevent a whole family of future problems.
• Maybe there’s some factor of which we are unaware, and upon learing that factor, we decide that our colleagues action wasn’t so bone-headed after all.
• Maybe, just maybe, following the Prime Directive will save us from looking stupid.

In any event, if we intend to learn from the past rather than score “points” against another in the present, the Prime Directive just makes plain good sense.

What do you think – is the Retrospective Prime Directive useful, or is it an excuse for teams not to challenge underperformance?

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