Don’t Blame The Prime Directive

Don\'t make your retrospectives look like this...

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time now, but just now I figured out what I wanted to say, so let’s do it!

What triggered this post was this article published in InfoQ, replied also in this other blog, about a discussion around the Retrospective Prime Directive, which, for those who don’t know, goes like this:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

I don’t want to comment here the whole article, since it’s a big one (and you should read it) , but I just want to make some points about it (3, to be exact).

Number One

I sincerely believe in the prime directive, and I think that all the persons in the team should also believe in it, and not “pretend” to, as suggested by someone in the article. As Mary Poppendieck pointed (actually Deming and Juran) , when an individual is not performing as expected, most of the times is a systemic problem, and not related to that specific person. Before blaming and pointing fingers, people should look at the system, and try to understand why that person is acting that way. What she said:

“both Deming and Juran observed that when a worker made mistakes, about 80-85% of the time it was due to a problem with the system, not the individual. I have found this to be generally true. It’s not that individuals don’t get tired or sloppy, because they do. But a system that does not ever allow a worker to get tired or sloppy is a bad system.”

Number Two

Here at ThoughtWorks, usually before a retrospective, a safety check is performed. This practice ensures that every member of the team can say anonymously how comfortable he/she feel about to discuss any problem that may arise. If you have a major trust problem in the team, probably that will be shown in the safety check, and then the retrospective should not even start before addressing it.

And if everybody is comfortable talking about anything, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t discuss any specific topic, if that’s affecting the team’s performance and as long as the retrospective doesn’t become a blame game, with criticism and finger pointing. The objective should always to improve the team’s result. As pointed before, probably if someone is acting in a way that isn’t positive for the team, probably that someone has his/her reasons, and could benefit from hearing that he/she is affecting the team’s result.

Number Three

But if you believe that some member of the team is deliberately acting against the team’s objectives, with intention of sabotaging the result in some way, then your problem isn’t really the prime directive. The problem is in reality much bigger, and I don’t think the retrospective will help you to solve it.



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