The Second Directive

In his book Project Retrospectives , Norm Kerth says:

For a retrospective to be effective and successful, it needs to be safe. By "safe," I mean that the participants must feel secure within their community — to discuss their work, to admit that there may have been better ways to perform the work, and to learn from the retrospective exercise itself.

To promote safety and trust, Norm recommends Kerth's Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

The Prime Directive came up recently on the Extreme Programming (XP) mailing list. In a conversation about a technical topic, I had pointed to my recent article about "Creating Empathy." Ron Jeffries responded by writing an article called "What's the Second Directive?" Ron describes a situation in which, as he puts it, "Jeffries screwed up." He ends the article this way:

I don't get it. I don't get how accepting badness as "we did our best" leads to learning. There must be something after the Prime Directive. What's the Second Directive?

In the ensuing conversation, which spilled over into the Industrial XP mailing list, Ron expressed his concerns very clearly:

I don't want anyone hurt, and I want everyone to feel safe. I also want everyone to feel responsibility for making sure that their actions work well for the team, and for making sure that they are on top of their actions to make that happen.

Is that so much to ask?

No, of course it's not too much to ask. Like Ron, I also want to promote responsibility in retrospectives. In the mailing list conversation, I described several ways in which, in my experience, the Prime Directive actually promotes responsibility:

  • The Prime Directive encourages me to take responsibility for creating an environment in which our actions can be more successful. If we each did the best we could do in that situation (and we did), and if I want us to do better next time (and I do), I'm going to have to take responsibility for changing the situation to support more effective behaviors.
  • The Prime Directive encourages me to take responsibility for my contribution to the situation. If we each did the best we could do in that situation (and we did), and if I want us to do better next time (and I do), and I contributed to the situation (let's suppose I did), I'm going to have to take responsibility for improving my contribution to the situation.
  • The Prime Directive encourages me to take responsibility not only for my actions, but also for how I choose my actions. If I did the best I could do in that situation (and I did), and if I want to do better next time (and I do), and I can't think of a way to change the situation around me (let's suppose I can't), I'm going to have to take responsibility for improving the way I choose my behaviors in that situation.

As I write this, I now see that applying the Prime Directive, all by itself, does not necessarily lead to the kind of responsibility I'm describing. As Ron suggested, there is something more than the Prime Directive. The "something more" is The Responsibility Razor. If I want better results next time, I'm going to have to take responsibility.

In the conversation on the mailing lists, I proposed a Second Directive to address Ron's concerns. Here it is, modified from my original wording to emphasize the central element of responsibility:

The Second Directive: We accept the responsibility to change at least one of the conditions that made our best less than we now want it to be.

I can now see that whenever I've applied Kerth's Prime Directive, I've also implicitly applied The Second Directive, and assumed that others were applying it, too. Now I want to make it explicit.

Thanks to Ron Jeffries for the big nudge.

Experiment: Apply The Second Directive on your next retrospective. Let me know what happens.

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