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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