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Retrospective Prime Directive

Avoiding a culture of blame goes a long way

2 min read
Retrospective Prime Directive
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.

This is the retrospective prime directive and I think that this sentence alone has made me a much better manager.

I've first learned about this sentence when my friend Patrick was facilitating a postmortem of a very, very failed project.

It was a difficult but important integration with a third party with many people involved — consultants, developers, managers, and with many flows of communication going all over the place — some of the commitments were made during lunches with the third party, most of the communication ended up in two people's email inbox, and the development team changed a couple of times while we were building the integration. In short, there were many reasons why we didn't ship the integration and there were many reasons for us to put blame on everyone else.

So Patrick started the retrospective of the project by asking us to read the prime directive. And then read it again. And only when were certain that every one of us understands that we're all trying our best with everything we have, it was then that the retrospective actually started.

And by then, we weren't looking for someone to blame. We weren't looking to defend ourselves and to clear our name. And whenever somebody slipped into something like "yes but the development team was invited to that meeting", Patrick would point to the poster with the prime directive and ask something like: "why do you think the team didn't go? They were doing their best." And then we'd figure out what was the context for every one of us. We were looking at the communication patterns. And most importantly, we were working together to improve the situation for everyone in the future.

Since that time, I've used the prime directive in many situations. It's especially useful when you don't have your usual team setting — when there are new people in the team, or when there's a particularly stressful situation. It helps center the discussion, move some of the defensive behavior out of the way, and with it, the biases and insecurities that every one of us brings to any conversation.

And since then, it's been a valuable tool in my managerial toolbox.

I hope it helps you as well.