/dev/journal: If you’ve worked in agile for any length of time, you’re bound to have run into the Retrospective Prime Directive from Norm Kerth’s book on Project Retrospectives:

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.

Depending on your facilitator, you may even have read it out loud like some kind of pledge of allegiance as part of the intro to the retrospective, but have you really taken time to reflect on what it means? I’ve been doing lots of retros with people new to it recently, which gave me the opportunity for some meta-retrospection and discussion with fellow agile leads. Here’s some of what we discussed.

No blame-storming

The most common reading of the Prime Directive is as an admonishment to prevent blame-storming in the retrospective. This keeps the conversation constructive, and allows an open discussion of what happened during the sprint without assigning blame.

They are Us

The other thing to keep in mind when considering the Prime Directive is that it is usually the team retrospecting on their own behaviour. So the “they” we talk about are us - our past selves. And the Prime Directive says to give ourselves a break. We did the best we could.

We did the best we could

And here’s the alternative reading of the Prime Directive: We (already) did the best we could, so the outcome of this retrospective can’t just be “try harder next time”. Prime Directive says “assume we already tried as hard as we could” - if you want different (“better”) outcomes next time, you have to come up with something different.

Different how? Well - that’s up to the team doing the retrospective, based on their context and their experience. Tighted definitions of ‘ready’ and/or ‘done’? Stronger protection of the team during the sprint? Fewer meetings? More frequent check-ins? It all depends on the team’s working environment and what slows them down (and what they have control or influence over).

Get better by doing different

The most important point is you can’t agree to just try harder next time and be done. Honouring the Prime Directive requires you to do something different.