Agile

Accepting that every team member is doing the best job they can

Many software development teams have a process including retrospective meetings. An opportunity for the team to look back at a period of time and assess how it has functioned. It’s often connected to the Scrum, but you don’t need to be adhering to any process / approach to see the value of having retrospective meetings. The goal of the retrospective is learning. What worked? What didn’t work? How can we improve something that’s broken? Should we continue with something that’s working?

Another aspect of the retrospective is that it’s meant to be a safe place for team members to speak their minds. The idea being that given a safe place, a team can figure out its own problems and possibly even solutions.

To create that safe place there needs to be trust. Enough trust so that team members can be candid with each other about issues that arise while working together. Enough trust that allows the team members to be vulnerable, and know that they won’t be judged. Where blame isn’t handed out, but rather bonds created and learnings are formed.

But how do we create a space in the busy life of a software development team, where deadlines and bugs are commonplace and there’s often a pressure to deliver something that will create value?

Kerth’s prime directive

This brings us to Kerth’s prime directive. The directive is an attempt to set the tone of a retrospective meeting, so that each team member understands and respects the retrospective as a safe place.

“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.”

The directive is extremely powerful when taken to heart. Its message is clear: During the course of the following conversation, there will be no blaming by others. If you truly accept that each team member did their very best, then you take the individual out of the equation. This leaves only the facts when looking back at which decisions were made, and the group can objectively see the entire picture. In theory.

Conflict

conflict-fighting

One common problem is when there is conflict within the team. Unless there’s a culture of dealing with the hard things straight on, then conflict may linger around just under the surface. This is when the prime directive is put the test. This may lead to each team member verbally accepting the directive, but having contradicting thoughts.

If the team members can be candid with each other and say straight up how they feel about a situation and how this affects them, then there will be an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.

Perhaps someone feels another team member isn’t pulling their weight? Possibly due to lack of effort or skill. Maybe both. The person feeling this may end up losing trust and not bring value to the conversation, and the person “not pulling their weight” may become defensive, and over-compensate for not doing their part.

The result of people not accepting the directive is a retrospective that barely scratches the surface of what the underlying problems are, but rather focus on superficial issues, or just team members that end up despising each other.

These meetings then lose their value, and become more of a ritual than a valuable place of learning and improvement.

Acceptance

But why do we even want to accept that people aren’t pulling their weight on the team? If they aren’t performing they have no right to be there. It’s their job, after all!

We are not machines. We are human beings with thoughts, feelings, concerns and ambitions. At any given time, a person may have any number of things going on in their personal or professional lives that affect how they perform at work. Perhaps their children are going through a very demanding period, and giving enough love and care for them is draining their capacity at work? Maybe there is illness in the family? Maybe the person is near rock bottom and is about to burnout? Perhaps a past experience is strongly guiding someones motivation?

There can be any number of reasons that contribute to how individuals perform, and effect how they contribute to the team. By truly accepting that people have done the best job they could possible do given their circumstances, we can then start a conversation based on mutual trust and understanding.

The individual’s responsibility opportunity

Each team member can allow their ego to get the better of them and seek out conflict, or humbly embrace the opportunity to be part of building up a great team. This can be done through practicing acceptance and being non-judgemental of others’ actions. Instead assume that people are doing the best they can.

If there are issues that need attention, then truly candid communication may be required. Instead of waiting until the retrospective to aire your grievances, speak to the person in question before. If they are taken by surprise in a group setting, no matter how safe it is, they may get defensive.

Final thoughts

Taking  Kerth’s prime directive to heart has the possibility to take a team to greatness or create an illusion of cooperation, which can bring the team down. The retrospective may be a great place to grow as a team, but a team is made up of all its interactions. Not just what happens in a single meeting. Trust has to be a part of the team culture, and the retrospective is just an extension of that culture. Perhaps this is why the prime directive and retrospectives may not work for some teams?

When we remove our ego from the equation, all that’s left is the desire to serve the team and meet its goals. We must value the people, but address issues that arise candidly. Through acceptance comes learning opportunities for everyone involved and the team will be better for it.

Non-judgemental acceptance isn’t easy, but important things rarely are.

What are your thoughts about acceptance? Should we remove our ego? Please feel free to reach out to me directly if you have any thoughts, questions or criticisms. Or leave a comment below.

 

  • Your posts are always thoughtful and sensitive, Pav, and I love them for that. I share your joy for retrospectives and I think you’re going to love the interview I had with Diana of Portland yesterday (not publishing for a few weeks, though). As I often do, I stand in opposition, though, to de-emphasis of the individual. Yes, being part of a team is important and an enriching experience, but not at the expense of the individual. This is my problem with the Jedi Order – that the self must be sacrificed and the Order is everything. Ultimately, it’s unsustainable and falls from grace like those of Dooku, Skywalker, and Krell are inevitable if there’s not space for the reality and importance of the self. (ok, I’m done with the fiction now). So I’m not on board with the idea of abandoning ego and letting go of self. We all know ego can be a problem, but I argue that it doesn’t have to be and that its absence is as toxic as its overgrowth. Nonetheless, I’m all for a safe space where blame is reserved and candid discussions of dysfunction without finger pointing are possible. Blame is counter-productive. The term “safe space” has been abused lately and I hesitate to use and endorse it, but in this context I like it. It’s not always true that all team members have done their best, but there’s always a reason – as you pointed out – and that reason usually requires a fellow-traveler rather than an accountability judge. Keep being the empathetic person you are and thank you for the light you’ve brought to my life through our interactions.

    • Your feedback is both challenging and balances what’s missing from the post. Any team is built up of individuals, and when those individuals work together the whole benefits.

      Like a pendulum swinging, I move from ego to selflessness and back. Time and experience will allow me to find that sweet-spot of balance, where the drive of ego, and compassion for others can live in harmony.

      Your words are powerful and moving, Dave. I am forever grateful you are part of my life and look forward to many more interactions and more Star Wars references.

  • einari

    I don’t think the ego should be removed. We shouldn’t be afraid of having heated arguments. Personally I am a strong believer of alignment on core values. The big arguments often get stranded because the belief system between people are too different. It is possible to set a certain stage for a team and let the team come to a framework on the teams belief system and core values. If the distance is still too big, I would argue the team might not have the right to exist and something more dramatic should be considered.

    Let the ego live and welcome the good constructive discussions.

    • You touch some very valid points with core values and a mutual framework of understanding, Einar.

      Conflict of opinion is natural no matter how aligned a team may be. It’s probably when handling these conflicts a team, and its members, show their true colours and the team either grows or stagnates.

      Conflicts are often when personal ego comes into play. Personal ego is all about the person(s) involved. “I am right”. “She is wrong”. “He’s being a jerk”.

      Leaving personal ego out does not distance you from standing firm for what you believe to be right. On the contrary, it leaves you in an even stronger position to move forward with your viewpoint. “This approach addresses these core issues with the project”. “The approach Jane is suggesting addresses this specific problem, but theres still the matter of…”

      On the one hand, a disagreement can be a draining and breaking experience for a team.

      On the other, it’s just an opportunity to solidify your own, and others, understanding of a problem/solution. While always leaving the door open for new learnings along the way.

      This in turn allows a team to grow, given they are aligned on core values, like you say.

      • einari

        Really slow in my replies these days – sorry about that.. 🙂

        I think good teamwork involves people who are able to be humble. Plus I would also claim that people with closed minds should come with closed mouths. That is possibly a provocative statement, but moving forward means often that you have to do new things and learn new things. If you have parts of your team not being able to be remotely interested in even looking at new things; conflict arise. From my experience, this is what happens most often. People wanting to have their comfort zone and are vocal about pushing anything new off the cliff.

        All that being said, in relation to my original point. Teams that are able to actually have heated debates and not make it personal are teams that I believe are able to push the envelope and be truly creative, they will come up with new solutions that are a combination of the arguments in the debate. This is what passion is. On the contrary, people who won’t move forward aren’t passionate – they will happily have the conflict to just stay in the comfort zone.

        Passion is key to super productive creative teams.

        • Some great statements, Einar 🙂 There will always be people who were thought how to write simple code and stick to these ways, afraid of changes. The issue become very apparent when such people form an “old guys” core team, then no matter what great minds you hire to strengthen the team, the endless process of groundless rant and tedious search of non-existent compromises will push them away.

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  • Just bought the Kerth’s book 🙂

    • Nice Alexey! Would be wonderful if you could share some of your learnings!