Agile Retrospectives: The Prime Directive

This is post #2 in a series dissecting agile retrospectives, see the introduction here

First Contact

I can still remember vividly the first time I was introduced to the prime directive. It was a Friday afternoon in the summer of 2007. There I was in Bangalore, at the end of my first week of training at ThoughtWorks University, a few days into my professional career as a software developer.

There’s about an hour left until the weekend. Our trainers gather us round for one last activity and a room full of 24 fresh-faced graduates from around the globe sit in anticipation. We’d heard about them earlier in the week, but this was to be our first, fully fledged retrospective. A trainer gets up and gives a brief introduction and we’re off, it starts with the reading out of the prime directive. As I sit absorbing the words I’m hearing, I pause and look around the room. I see faces concentrating, mulling over the words in their head and amongst them I see a pensive look or two.

The next day a group of us sit in one of our apartments, getting to know each other and generally chatting. Eventually one of us brings up the retrospective we performed the day earlier. One of us, Kath, had taken particular offence at the prime directive and as we debated I shifted over to her point of view.

She was angry. Angry that we had been told that we need to accept these words without question. She did not truly believe that people were performing to the best of their abilities and resented being told that they did.

Kath didn’t agree with the prime directive. To be honest, neither did I. This is because it was never really explained to us. In fact it remained unexplained for a long time, and it was only around 2 years ago that I finally found an answer that satisfied me.

Presenting the Prime Directive

Before I get to that I want to tell you another story. This one takes place a couple of months after the events in Bangalore. It’s the story of my first “real” retrospective, on my first project back in London after TWU.

The prime directive had been printed out on a bit of A4 paper and stuck up with some blu-tack next to the whiteboard. It had been lying around for weeks, the same sheet used multiple times so it was in a sorry state with jagged edges, scruffy corners and the odd tear. The writing, while big enough to span the A4 sheet of paper was woefully too small for a room full of people to be able to read (which would have been a problem only if people actually tried to read it).

The facilitator would stand at the front of the room, give the pitiful scrap of paper an annoyed glance, sigh to themselves and mutter something about how every retrospective starts with the prime directive and just waves everyone towards the paper, gesturing them to read it, which no-one does as they’ve all seen it before.

So why is this story relevant? Well, before I address the content of the prime directive and it’s meaning, I want to first talk about its presentation.

Part of the responsibility of a facilitator is to communicate the importance of the prime directive and the reasons for it being used. By having it so hidden away, so neglected and by treating it with such disdain you are signifying that you do not respect it and that you don’t think it’s worthy of much attention- all that before you’ve even opened your mouth.

I always remember that first retrospective in London when I’m facilitating. I remember how it made me feel about the prime directive (“why are even wasting our time with this thing!?”)

I tend to use slides when I facilitate – not through the entire retro and not every single time, but if it’s the first time I’m running a retro for a given team. I want the team to know that I’ve put effort into my preparation, that I value this process. They also provide visual stimulation, keep the attention and focus of a group. Plus, retrospectives are, in my mind, by their very nature a creative process. Having pictures and sounds and colours stimulates a different part of the brain.

So, when I present the prime directive, I try my best to make it look good. I want the team to know that I consider it a valuable exercise worth of my, and the teams, attention. This is not something I’m putting in just because it’s the ‘done thing’, but because I understand the value it brings.

The Prime Directive

An example slide I’ve used in the past

Understanding the Prime Directive

So that’s the easy part, presenting the prime directive. You’ve captured the team’s attention, they’ve seen your enthusiasm and you’ve won them over with your snazzy presentation of the prime directive, they’re listening ready to hear what you have to say next … but what do you say? Now we get back to the real important part. What’s the prime directive all about?

Do I believe the words of the prime directive? No! and neither did Kath. She had a point back then in that apartment in Bangalore and even then I could understand her perspective. I knew the world was not that ideal; and after 5 years working for over 10 different clients, trust me, the words of the prime directive are rarely not always true. This caused a conflict in me and it would nag away at me whenever I would see the prime directive used, ultimately distracting me during the retrospective and diminishing its effectiveness for me.

I found it difficult to digest, to accept, completely, the words of the prime directive; but that’s not the point. What the prime directive is missing, is two very important words at the start … “let’s pretend”

It’s that simple. You don’t have to believe the words of the prime directive.  That is not the point, and you shouldn’t be asking people to believe them, but rather just pretend that they’re true.

If you do think someone is not performing appropriately, that is a crucial conversation that needs to take place and it is essential it happens as soon as is appropriate, however the retrospective is not an appropriate forum for such a conversation. That is something that needs to happen in private, one on one, not in front of the entire team.

A retrospective should be about a team coming together and analysing its workings as a group. By putting yourself into a the mind-set defined in the prime directive before you start, allows for more productive conversation and ultimately benefits the whole team. It is not telling you that these words are true, its just reminding you that if they’re not, then its something you should be dealing with outside of the retrospective

This isn’t something I came up with by myself, its something I read, and that resonated with me, perhaps it appealed to some base optimism inside me that wanted to believe that there must be value in this thing, but I feel over time following this simple rule has indeed led to better, more focused and fruitful discussions.

About the Author: akash

7 Comments

    • Reply akash

      Hi Magali,

      I wasn’t even sure if anyone was reading these! I’ve just finished number 3, posting it now :)

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  3. Reply Alicia Drucker

    I love that when I googled ‘Agile prime directive’ just now in order to present an image at the beginning of a retro – I was led directly to this blog post. You’re awesome, Akash!

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