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.
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.
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.
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.
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.