Retrospectives, blame, and the Prime Directive, part 1

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. — Rumi

When I first ran across the Retrospective Prime Directive, I was excited. It gave me hope that there were folks who’d found a way to do business without relying on blame. In my experience, blame gets in the way of creativity, of learning and growing, so I’m delighted to discover people who, like me, want to build a productive work life without it.

In case you aren’t familiar, the RPD is intended to create a safe space for a retrospective, where we look at the past to decide how we can best move forward. It goes like this:

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.

I’m noticing, though, that the phrase “did the best job they could” gets under some people’s skin. If I look at it just right, it gets under mine, too. What does it mean to “believe” that? If everyone’s doing their best all the time, what does that mean? There’s no not-best to compare it with, right?

The best they could?

Esther Derby’s post, Are You Doing Your Best? talks about the ways we can see someone as doing the best they could given the circumstances. She covers circumstances that we might overlook (like whether they have an ergonomic chair). Remembering those things can help me stay out of a mental blame-space, but they don’t cover all the problems with “the best.”

One person may think the phrase means that everyone’s always at their peak (which can’t be true). Another says this talk of “doing their best” is naive and insulting. Someone else points out that they know they don’t always do their best, so why would they assume other people do?

A coach writes that she doesn’t actually believe that folks aren’t to blame, but she agrees to suspend disbelief, or pretend, for the purposes of retrospection. Lastly, someone told me that what the RPD means is that this is not an occasion for blaming or judging. We set those things aside for now.

But there’s a problem with the pretending idea. People know when you’re pretending.

Why does the prime directive and our assumptions about people matter?

The psychologist Carl Rogers described three things someone needs from another person in order to experience growth. First, they need their coach (that is, the person in the helping role) to be real with them, congruent, not covering up what they are experiencing. Second, they need empathy from that person. That is, they need to be seen, heard, and understood. And finally, they need something Rogers called unconditional positive regard.

That last is a doozy. What it means is that your influence over someone, your ability to help them develop, depends on your liking them. Or, as the Arbinger Institute puts it:

“… no matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside.”

It may seem impossible to meet all of Rogers’ criteria. To be completely honest, to see and hear a person’s experience, and to still see them in a positive light might seem to be more than any human can accomplish. I don’t believe it is. In fact, in my experience, it’s possible to be completely honest about what happened (including noticing who caused what, and how) without blame or judgment, and to move forward with solutions that work.

Part 2 is about how that’s possible, and about screwing up, dealing with anger & frustration, how we improve if we’re already doing our best. Oh, and also unconditional love. (Stay tuned.)

14 thoughts on “Retrospectives, blame, and the Prime Directive, part 1

  1. Nice post, Angela. I’m looking forward to part two, but I can’t resist on commenting on part one.

    I’m not sure where people get the idea that “doing their best” means “at their peak.” As I posted yesterday, the peak may be beyond brief. It may be fiction. “Best possible” for a human being would have to cover so many dimensions at once. Yet both of the sentiments you quote, that it’s insulting or that one merely pretends, presume that there is some objective, context-free “best” that we can be.

    I find the Prime Directive enormously useful, but only slightly so for creating a sense of safety in a retrospective. It’s taken me much thought and practice to understand it, and I don’t think I’m capable of communicating that understanding in a short period of time.

    Instead, I find it more useful for myself. It reminds me to be congruent when I’m dealing with difficult situations involving other people.

    “Beating someone up” over mistakes they’ve made, or poor performance, is very tempting but not very helpful. It’s the classic Satir blaming stance, “I’m everything and you’re nothing.” I’m right and you’re wrong.” Personally, I find it very easy to jump to that stance, and the Prime Directive helps me to notice my incongruence and change my behavior. With luck, that notice and change happens before I say anything.

    Of course, it doesn’t help to beat yourself up when you’re disappointed in your actions, either. This is the placating stance, “I’m nothing and you’re everything.” Rick Brenner has a brief article on Satir coping stances.

    The point, as Rachel Davies noted on twitter, is to direct the energy toward Systems Thinking rather than individual blame. It’s there that we can find improvements.

  2. As usual, the hardest part about a project is the people. Cultivating an environment where people feel safe enough to discuss root cause without feeling threatened is incredibly difficult.

    It requires compassion, a willingness to be a blame lightning rod(I.E takeing responsibility regardless of who is at fault so that the team can get back to problem solving if they get derailed), and an earnest belief that the people involved did what they did because it seemed best at the time.

    In The Design of Everyday Things Don Norman references a study that showed that the Chernobyl incident as well as the Three Mile Island incident were all the result of people doing the most intelligent thing that was apparent to them at the time. He used it as a reason to make sure the right information is visible to the right people when designing everyday things, but I use it as an illustration that no matter how big the blow up, it’s very rarely malicious.

    Even the case of Enron was the result of some people trying their best to change how the world did business and traded commodities who slipped into ethical violations. The beauty of retrospective and honest communication between parties is that by encouraging openness you can check and balance, and alter your daily strategy based upon feedback from some of the most incredible information sensing and processing engines in the world. People.

  3. @George,
    I was worried reading your comment that I’d only be able to reply with some blathering like “yep, omg you are so awesome, yep” but then I got to the end, and found something to pick a bone over! Yay! :)

    I am way into systems thinking. Yes. But I wouldn’t want to give up my practice of doing a sort of root cause analysis on myself as well. I can discover things about me (a system, by the way) that I want to change. For example, if I notice mistakes I’m making, I might also notice that I’ve been staying up reading at night, and *that’s* because I’m not getting enough time alone, and *that’s* because…

    If I’m not living in blame-land, I can look at these things with curiosity, and even enjoy learning about them. So yes, systems, but all the systems. Including me, my family, and the work place.

  4. @Zach
    Thanks. Compassion is definitely important. Though I find when I use the word folks are often either suspicious that there’s no such thing, or doubtful that it’s something that mere mortals can accomplish. That’s why I’m a student of “technologies of compassion.” I think people have come up with brilliant ways to bring compassion to life, and I aim to learn them. :)

  5. Angela, I quite agree on doing root-cause-analysis on my own behavior. It’s just not helpful for me to think “If I were more diligent…;” “If I were more disciplined..;” or “If I were a better person….” These are not actionable to me.

    Instead, I may think “I created this defect because I didn’t think about the edge conditions… because I was in a hurry… because I’d gotten behind on what I wanted to accomplish… because I’d spent too long trying to clean up some legacy code.” Or something like that. I try to notice things I can do better rather than being better. Behavior is easier to change.

  6. @George
    Well, now I’m back to blathering. But in seriousness, thanks for that. I’m glad to know you. I will file you under “someone who can remind me, when I forget.”-A

  7. I agree with George above. I don’t think that the RPD is about pretending anything, it’s about truly believing that the root-cause of what happened was something else than people performing badly out of spite. Saying that; given everything around us, someone performed less than their best, leaves us at a dead end. There’s no improvment to be found there.

    I’d like to turn the reasoning around as well:
    If we go into the retrospective with the notion that we can and want to improve. If we truly believe that there are root-causes that we can act on and we look for these; I’m certain that we will also reach the conclusion that everyone actually did their best, given the circumstances at hand.

    There is of course the special case that someone is willfully performing less than what the circumstances allow for, but that in my book is pure sabotage and should be handled as an extreme case when/if we come to that conclusion.


  8. There are many different ways to define love, and they’re all silly and scary and broken and incomplete. Some things just don’t fit in words. Come to think of it, that’s *most* things, or most of the important things.

    Knowing you, I’ll be interested to see the second part. — Hill

  9. Recently when I talk about retrospectives, I ask the people to stand up (raise their hand) if they think most of the time they do their best.
    And hen I ask them to do the same thing but nw thiking about everyone else on their team.

    Usually about 50 % of the raised hands go down.
    The RPD is for me about the difference between the two.
    I want people to look at each other the same way they judge themselve. (and yes I know the biggest blamers are also hard on themselves.)

    For me it is not about pretending, it’s abut focussing.
    I think that if we focus this way, we can already find tons of stuff to fix.
    (And this way it is easier to find it.)

    And when we arrive at a situation we no longer find anything to improve when we apply the RPD, then we can and should drop it. I have yet to encounter that situation.


  10. Hey, Yves, thanks for the comment! I’m really curious what happens in the retro when people notice that they think they do their best, but not that other people do. Do you introduce the RPD at that point, and ask them to change their assumption for the purposes of the retrospective? Do they agree to?

  11. this example is from when I talk at conferences about retrospectives and yes then I introduce RPD.
    Already multiple times people came to me and tell me that this was the most insightful moment of the talk.
    (And of course I’m biased to think that everything else is also very good info… ;-) )

    recently I also add an example from a clients where we worked with a few agile coaches that believe in the RPD and where one of us send a mail to the others after a meeting stating that he feels that we did not all respected the RPD. I have no idea what he was talking about, I really can not see what he is alluding to. The fact that he( a person I respect and part of my team) says it happened makes it true for me.

    I’m not telling them they should do this. I’m asking them to try this in their next retrospective and see if it gives a different output. Usually I see lots of nodding faces when I ask this.

    Also, the RPD does not limit me to look for mistakes I/we did. It only removes the blame from the mistake.
    Actually for me since I know the RPD, I have it easier to talk about problems, because I now know I can split problems and blaming.

    Dealing with feedback never is easy. Lots of people feel always blamed, other prefer to blame others.
    I advice having a look at Responsibility proces of Christopher Avery ( too look for other ways of interacting

  12. Angela, I quite agree on doing root-cause-analysis on my own behavior. It’s just not helpful for me to think “If I were more diligent…;” “If I were more disciplined..;” or “If I were a better person….” These are not actionable to me. Instead, I may think “I created this defect because I didn’t think about the edge conditions… because I was in a hurry… because I’d gotten behind on what I wanted to accomplish… because I’d spent too long trying to clean up some legacy code.” Or something like that. I try to notice things I can do better rather than being better. Behavior is easier to change.

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