The Prime Directive

Gathering your team to discuss how the past work cycle went is excellent, but it can easily turn into a blaming game, draining away any benefits and potentially hurting your team's health.

These Retrospectives can go wrong if people's mindset isn't appropriate. That's why all attendees should be familiar with the Prime Directive, an Agile maximum coined by Norman Kerth that lays the principles for conducting productive sessions.

Keep reading to learn more about this cornerstone and enhance your Retros.

Topics to check

  1. What is the Prime Directive?
  2. Who is Norman Kerth?
  3. The Blameless Retrospective
  4. The Anonymous Retrospective

1. What is the Prime Directive?

The Prime Directive's purpose is to clarify that the point of reviewing the past work cycle is not to blame, attribute mistakes, or find out who is not doing what they are supposed to. It promotes the idea that everyone did their best. Here is the original quote.

Norman Kerth included this phrase in his 2001 book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team's Reviews, where he digs deeper into the art of performing Retros. But why would you listen to Kerth's advice?

2. Who is Norman Kerth?

He is a consultant based in Portland, Oregon, and has over 20 years of experience working with companies to develop specification and design methodologies, emphasizing object-oriented technologies. He has helped organizations such as Microsoft, IBM, American Express, Nike, and the US Army. In case you want to learn more about his resume before trusting him.

Sadly, the expert suffered a disabling accident some years ago. You can learn more about Norman Kerth's situation.

3. The Blameless Retrospective

As mentioned before, the goal of framing your Retrospectives within the Prime Directive values is to have productive sessions while preventing the team's mood from being negatively affected. You must ensure to follow its principles to make all your Retrospectives blaming-free.

Remembering the Prime Directive at the start of any session is step one, but you must ensure a safe space for the whole meeting. That means anybody should be ready to interfere if any discussion catches fire. In that sense, respect is a value that goes hand-to-hand as well.

When discussing respect, we consider good advice by Sverrir Tynes, Atlassian Solutions Partner. He thinks it is not only about being polite, but it's also important that making sure all voices are heard is considered part of that respect. That's why the Scrum Master, but also the more extroverted members of the team, should help the more shy teammates to always participate.

Never forget that:

4. The Anonymous Retrospective

It would be great if all teams could always conduct their Retrospectives within the Prime Directive values, actively participating and respecting each other. But what happens when there's not enough trust yet for people to get comfortable to fully express themselves?

Maybe some Agile practitioners consider that anonymous participations oppose to the principles of clarity and transparency. Still, it can help people openly share their thoughts, which is Agile compliant. In the end, you want to learn what's working fine, what's not, and how to improve. It doesn't matter if you have to carry some anonymous Retros before the team is ready to directly say what they think.

Anonymous sessions might always be blameless. By taking out people's names, you are only left with ideas.

If you think trying anonymous Retros may help your team have better sessions, try Agile Retrospectives for Jira or Confluence. This add-on lets you easily configure and run Retros in four simple steps, with unique features such as the capability of hosting anonymous sessions.

You can have a sneak-peak of the app in the following video walkthrough:

Start your free trial here.

In conclusion

  • The Prime Directive’s purpose is to set the right environment to review the past work cycle, without apportioning blame. It promotes the idea that everyone did their best, given the circumstances.

  • Running anonymous Retrospectives can almost ensure your sessions are blameless. They can be a great tool to build trust between people, specially in recently formed teams.

More about Agile Retrospectives:


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