The Prime Directive for Successful Retrospectives

Agility means adaptability. First and foremost with regard to the product being developed. Step by step, usable interim products are created, which help to explore the problem domain and the possible solutions. However, adaptability not only covers the product, but also the way the team works. “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” Among the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto this is one of the most important. Agility is therefore much more than just a method, but rather means taking responsibility for the product as well as the way people work together. However, especially the latter requires the right stance to be successful and not to end up in blaming. It is exactly this stance that Norman L. Kerth beautifully described as the Prime Directive in his book “Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews” (Amazon Affiliate Link).

Four Strategies for Evading Responsibility

There are many strategies for evading responsibility. Christoph Avery has divided them into different stages in his Responsibility Process model. The lowest level is that of blaming others. Then comes the level of justification, in which we find the cause of our problem not in someone else, but rather in the circumstances, which is obviously as passive and unhelpful as blaming others. The next level is shame, where we blame ourselves, but in a passive way without acknowledging any possibility for changing something. At the level of obligation, we finally argue that we are obliged to act as we do and that we therefore don’t have any choices. All these response patterns have in common that we fearfully avoid the problem instead of asking ourselves what we can improve here and now.

What is Responsibility? Responsibility is a mental state that is open, spacious, free, and safe. You trust that you have sufficient intelligence, creativity, and resources to face whatever life brings.

Christopher Avery. The Responsibility Process

The Prime Directive: A Matter of Stance

Naturally, these patterns also have an impact in agile teams and hinder the vital continuous improvement. Fear and agility are a poor combination. It is therefore important to know these patterns and to counteract them. People need a secure space in which they can open up without fear and search constructively for improvements as a team. This is first and foremost a question of stance. And Norman L. Kerth’s Prime Directive sums up this attitude beautifully:

Regardless of what we discover, we must 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.

Norman L. Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Many teams will read out loud this text (there are also translations into different languages) at the beginning of a retrospective and also hang it out so that one can always refer to it. Additionally, it can help to post the above mentioned steps of the Responsibility Process, for which Christopher Avery also provides a nice poster (in several languages). A lovely good practice that helps you to keep in mind the right mindset for interacting with each other in order to continuously improve collaboration and to become more effective as a team.

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