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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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Community comments

  • Context

    by Dave Nicolette,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    My understanding of the Retrospective Prime Directive as applied to agile teams is that it is a reaction to the general tendency for people to lay blame. I take it as a reminder to assume people have good intentions most of the time.

    Questions like "What does it mean to 'believe' something?" or "What does 'do your best' mean?" smack of the old Monty Python sketch about a mock TV program on philosophy in which the host is reduced to a rapid-fire stream of questions: "What do we mean by the word 'what'? What do we mean by the word 'do'? What do we mean by the word 'we'? What do we mean by the word 'mean'? What do we mean by the word 'by'? What do we mean by the word 'the'?" etc. The question is non-useful because it ignores context and intent.

    Another angle on "context" is that the Retrospective Prime Directive isn't an "agile" thing. It's more general than that. It was created to help with all sorts of retrospectives, before there was a thing named "agile." Not only the original blogger, but also the author of the InfoQ article misunderstands this. Ironically, he misunderstands it even while mentioning Norm Kerth's book on retrospectives, which has to do with project retrospectives (the old "post mortem" thing; an event lasting up to 3 days and involving many stakeholders) and nothing to do with "agile" retrospectives (sometimes called "heartbeat retrospectives," usually taking 1 to 2 hours and focusing on a single team's continuous improvement efforts).

    Naturally, if you don't understand (or choose to ignore) the context of a subject, you will end up asking pointless questions about trivia or nit-picking word meanings.

    So, to the author's question: Do I think the Retrospective Prime Directive is useful? I would say it is as useful as any other model, provided we (a) understand the context and (b) remember that a model is only a model.

  • Focus on the future

    by Andrei Volkov,

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    In context of retrospective I find patronizing laughable at best and offensive at worst. As a grown-up / mature / responsible / professional adult I am able to handle critique well. In fact I encourage as straightforward critique as possible since that helps me speed-up by self-improvement process. Same applies when I point to others mistakes. That said, I'd like to reiterate Dinwiddie's point: by framing the retrospective as the rootcause analysis ("the 5 why's") you're effectively changing the context from reprimanding the person for past mistakes, to preventing the issue from reoccurring in the future. This is what's important. Anything else is just social skills.

  • Not a peer review

    by Pat Leamon,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    A retrospective is about finding out how to avoid problems in the future and for that you need everyone focused on how to do things better. It's not a scapegoating session. Who would come to a meeting where their colleagues riduculed them for not getting something right? That's better left to HR processes.

    The prime directive isn't patronising, it's there to focus you on achieving something.

  • Re: Focus on the future

    by Dave LeBlanc,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    Can we talk about things people did right/wrong? Absolutely. It's the "social skills" of how that's accomplished that's key - highlighting individual performance can be very touchy - especially in a group setting, and it must be done with tact and respect.

    It sounds like your version of "straighforward critique" includes respect - so I think you're essentially acting in accordance with the directive. Some people need a little more reminding, and it can be useful to bring up when people start descending into the blame game.

    I'm surprised you find it patronizing, I find it refreshing to be in the company of people that care enough about each other to keep the atmosphere free of blame and disrespect.

  • Look at the Donut - not at the hole

    by Don Carlson,

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    I thought the "Prime Directive" was "...there should be no interference with the internal development of "pre-warp" civilizations..." Oops - wrong prime directive

    it's simply a guiding principal for conducting a retrospective - don't get tripped up with analyzing blame as a root cause or contributing reason for why something didn't work as you expected it - otherwise the foundation of your analysis and resulting findings will fall apart. This doesn't mean that you can't list a finding as ".. the skills of Developer A were not advanced enough for ..." However, without the PD - retrospectives would need to analyze if a developer purposely sabotaged the development effort as a contributing cause to an issue ... then everything else you analyze for improvement is subject to the sabotage.

    Assume everyone did their best and use the time in a retrospective to uncover issues that can be improved.

  • It's about assumptions

    by James Watson,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    This prime directive makes a lot of sense to me. I've find it easy to look at something someone else did and think "why would they do this?" Not only is this bad for putting people on the defensive in a review but it's a bad way to think about things. More and more I realize that so much work that is done starts with the assumption that what was done before needs to be fixed. While there are always improvements to be made, sometimes things that seem crazy are there for a reason.

    In the end, so many of these projects fail to implement those 'stupid' things that were done before and later it is realized that those 'stupid' things were really important and now have to be shoehorned in at the last moment. Later, someone comes along as sees these 'stupid' things that were shoehorned in and decides that the work needs to be redone to eliminate these 'stupid' things and the cycle continues. A good example of this is how so many new tools have no independently deployable artifacts or modular source that can be used with common source control tools.

    To me this really just another way of saying "seek first to understand."

  • Re: Focus on the future

    by Mark Levison,

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    Andrei - you're right that the Directive is about "social skills". Anything involving interaction with other people is about social skills. Its a tool to help people remember to focus on the events and not the people. Humans are wired to take criticism as an attack on their status. So changing the focus reduces the chance of flipping people into defensive mode. Even if it doesn't work for you consider the team mate it might help.

    Mark Levison
    Agile Pain Relief Consulting

  • A replacement?

    by Mark Levison,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    For those who find the Prime Directive Patronizing, that's fine but instead of just complaining suggest an improvement. Remember its value is to help set a positive tone and move the focus from people to events.

    To Angela, Andrei and others how about formulating something new? Perhaps we can bash around a better statement?

    Mark Levison
    Agile Pain Relief Consulting

  • Re: A replacement?

    by Andrei Volkov,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I don't find Prime Directive in and of itself Patronizing, in fact I am against the interpretation that assumes that Prime Directive contains a subtle suggestion that the Retrospectives have to be patronizing or else they will descent into blame. My position is that, indeed people always do the best they can at the moment, and let us see how things can be improved, just don't be patronizing in the bad sense of the word.

  • Re: A replacement?

    by Gil Broza,

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    I don't use the Prime Directive as stated in the book. I don't know that retrospective participants actually do believe it about others. I use something else I've borrowed from NLP: The premise that whatever people did, however they behaved, THEY believed (perhaps subconsciously) that the behaviour had a positive intent.

    For instance, if a team member doesn't update the status on the task board, that's certainly not "the best they could". But it might well have a positive [unstated] intent, such as "I wanted to keep going," or "others aren't doing it, so by doing it myself, I'm wasting time," or whatever.

    In outlining the retro's ground rules, I replace the Prime Directive with "Assume best intent", and explain it as above. I've never had any trouble with people accepting it or not applying it.


  • Re: A replacement?

    by Arin Sime,

    Your message is awaiting moderation. Thank you for participating in the discussion.

    I like Gil's phrasing of "Assume best intent." It seems to me that if you are facilitating a retrospective and you help the team focus on team practices instead of publicly castigating individual team members, then I think you've got it right.

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