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The Prime Directive of Retrospectives

Anders Rojewski's picture
By Anders Rojewski
Published on July 28, 2022
The Prime Directive

Conducting Agile retrospectives gives your team the opportunity to learn and continually improve.

However, like any group activity, this exercise must be based on a good level of trust between the different team members.

There is a simple but yet powerful tool that helps you shape the foundations of a productive retrospective: the Prime Directive.

Today, let's dive into the what, the why, and the how of the Prime Directive.

In this article, we will walk through:

  1. The origins and definition of the Prime Directive

  2. An analysis of the quote

  3. The link between the Prime Directive and psychological safety

  4. In what contexts should the Prime Directive be applied?

  5. What can happen if you ignore the Prime Directive?

  6. 5 reasons why you should use it at your next retro

  7. An additional tool to improve the quality of your retrospectives

Origins and definition of the Prime Directive

The Prime Directive refers to the following quote:

‘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.’

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

So, where does the Prime Directive come from?

In 2001, Norman L. Kerth published an excellent book named Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. If there was such a thing as a Retrospective World, you could call this book its Founding Text.

Master Kerth gave the name Project Retrospective to what I would describe as ‘a group exercise that consists in reflecting on past events of our iteration or project, learning lessons and then building an action plan to help the team quickly improve’.

But calling this a ‘retrospective’ looks way easier, right? - ​​that's why I'm not an author.

Of course, the Prime Directive can be considered a good conduct rule. But it is something much more powerful than that. 

In my opinion, The Prime Directive is the basis of a high-performing and deeply-caring team's mindset. 

Prime Directive Analysis

At Neatro, we like to go deep when discussing topics related to the Agile retrospective. This is why I’d like to share my own analysis of the Prime Directive with you.

Let’s focus on each idea taken from the Prime Directive:

  • Regardless of what we discover: you cannot be sure about what’s going to emerge from a retrospective beforehand. Participating in such a meeting requires openness and flexibility.

  • we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could: let's all put aside our suspicions and consider that all team members are as honest as we are. Each member gave the best of their abilities - any thought going against this makes the retrospective less productive.

  • ‘given what they knew at the time’: the more your project advances, the more the group learns. Except that sharing and assimilating knowledge within the team is not always easy (if you've ever completed an escape game with friends, you know what I'm talking about). Thus, my interpretation is that the author wants to stress that everyone did their best according to their own level of knowledge of the project at the time.

  • ‘their skills and abilities’: everyone did their best, according to their skills and abilities – from the newly arrived development intern to the experienced CTO.

  • ‘the resources available’: if you want to get a successful team, it is better to meet all the conditions necessary for its success. Thus, you'd better ensure that the team has the material, budgetary or human resources to achieve its objectives.

  • ‘and the situation at hand’: this refers to any element or event directly influencing the team's functioning (it could also be about the market).

The Prime Directive looks ‘straight to the point’. But it covers many necessary aspects to run smooth retrospectives.

When known and applied by team members, the Prime Directive helps establish a healthy climate that maximizes openness and transparency within the group. Two ingredients that actively contribute to a good level of psychological safety.

The link between Prime Directive and Retrospectives Psychological Safety

The concept of psychological safety has gained much popularity since the late 2010s. However, two decades earlier, Norman L. Kerth had already formulated the importance of a rule enabling team members to express themselves in complete transparency.

‘For a retrospective to be effective and successful, it needs to be safe. By “safe”, I mean that the participants must feel secure within their community - to discuss their work, to admit that there may have been better ways to perform the work, and to learn from the retrospective exercise itself.’

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

By applying the Prime Directive, participants in the retrospective give themselves the necessary space to discuss how the team could have accomplished their tasks better.

Norman L. Kerth underlines an important point: the implementation of the Prime Directive is absolutely necessary for each participant to feel safe. See below:

‘In an ideal world, this kind of safety and trust would be a natural way of doing work. In the real world, members of the community may feel only a small degree of safety or trust. Each participant needs to choose the level of safety that is right for him or her.’

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

Finally, the author points out the very nature of what a retrospective is: a place where everyone should feel free to share their ideas. This includes the most sensitive or ‘unsafe’ points of view.

‘A method for expressing "unsafe" ideas during the retrospective needs to be established.‘

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

An unsafe idea refers to a specific point of view that places its author in a position of extreme vulnerability. 

However, it is not about the idea itself. Instead, the unpredictable reaction of the group to the idea (and its author) is truly what makes the idea unsafe.

In what situations can you use the Prime Directive?

Of course, the Prime Directive is suited for any iteration or Sprint retrospective - whether held in-person or online. The same goes for project or event post-mortems.

But all things considered... the Prime Directive is the perfect ally for any teamwork session.

Since the objective of the Prime Directive is to establish a working environment that fosters collaboration, why not use it in your brainstorms, Sprint reviews, or regular team meetings?

The Prime Directive can help any team, regardless of their ways of working. Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, Waterfall, etc... - who cares about frameworks here? The only thing you need to care about is continuous improvement.

Finally, I suggest you make yourself a gift! Apply the Prime Directive to your personal retrospectives. Believe that you have done your best to achieve your goals, and put aside negative ideas that will only hurt your self-esteem. It will be easier for you to identify levers for improvement later.

What will happen if you ignore the Prime Directive?

Ignoring the Prime Directive exposes you and your team to communication and trust issues. Simply put, the probabilities that your retrospective fails are high.

‘If the prime directive is violated, the possibility of a successful retrospective ritual is significantly diminished and the retrospective will fail.‘

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

We have seen that the Prime Directive helps clarify what is expected from the meeting participants. Author Aino Vonge Corry believes that not following this common rule opens the door to negative behavior.

‘The consequence could be that participants bring all their assumptions and negative expectations to the retrospective instead of anticipating a chance to share and learn.‘

- Aino Vonge Corry, Retrospectives Antipatterns

The Prime Directive is excellent protection against blame culture and finger-pointing bad habits. Bypassing this protection drastically lowers the chances that something productive comes out of your meeting.

5 reasons why you should use the Prime Directive

Here are some bullet points that will help you communicate the value of the Prime Directive to your team.

  1. It is an easy-to-understand tool that helps clarify expected behaviors in your retrospectives.

  2. The Prime Directive establishes a climate of trust in the team, which raises the group's psychological security level.

  3. It gives everyone the chance to express themselves without fear of being blamed.

  4. The Prime Directive helps highlight areas of improvement for the team - without offending anyone in particular.

  5. Ultimately, this tool greatly helps maximize your retrospectives' value. More openness = more vulnerability = we tell each other the real things = we try to improve on what truly matters = we become stronger together.

Bonus reason: if you have Star Trek fans on your team, know that the Prime Directive is a major concept in the series. Although it has no connection with the Prime Directive that we studied here, I did find a quote that sums up its spirit:

‘We prefer to help ourselves. We make mistakes, but we're human—and maybe that's the word that best explains us.’

- Kirk and Harry Mudd fight in I, Mudd (Star Trek, S2E8)

Kindness, humanity and cooperation are core requirements for having a healthy team.

Thank you, Captain Kirk 🖖

One more tool to improve your retrospectives

Applying the Prime Directive is an excellent reflex to enhance the psychological safety levels of your team.

But did you know that Neatro is the ideal tool for conducting a productive retrospective in a virtual or hybrid setting?

At Neatro, we have built a retrospective experience that guarantees an optimal level of psychological safety for your team.

Here are two key ingredients of our secret recipe:

  • We prevent groupthink: when members write comments and share ideas, they do it individually first. Thus, no one can be influenced by other team members. The same principle applies during the dot-voting stage, where the team members separately vote and prioritize discussion topics.

  • We give you the choice of anonymity: as we have seen in this article, it is not always easy to share an 'unsafe' idea with the team. This is why we allow each participant to share their thoughts in anonymous mode whenever they need it.

Try Neatro for free for your next retrospective. No credit card is needed to start your Neatro adventure!

We wish you a great retrospective ;)

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