The Prime Defective

Recently, and in a few different contexts I have been alerted to the Retrospective Prime Directive, and just as when I first came across it a few years ago I find my response the same. I am irked. So I decided to think about why.

“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 find this to be vapid nonsense, and actually quite insulting to one’s fellow travelers. In the pursuit of some kind of new-age political correctness this statement manages to be both patronizing and phony, and at the same time contain so many “given that” clauses as to be utterly meaningless. If you redefine “best” in any way you choose of course I always do my best. But taking it to its logical extreme, if I abuse someone, am I doing my best “given that I was angry at the time”… and if I kill someone, am I doing my best “given that I needed [money|revenge|drugs] at the time”? Clearly the term “best” becomes meaningless.

But it isn’t the absurdity of the statement that irks me, it is more the smug condescension. When I reflect I want to be able to acknowledge that I didn’t do my best. I want to acknowledge that I acted badly sometimes, that I made mistakes because I was caught up in my own ego, that I didn’t listen, that I rushed in like a fool, that I may have hurt people, or done poor work. If you metaphorically pat me on the head and tell me, “there, there, my dear, you did your best”, I’ll want to metaphorically punch you in the face.

Let’s respect people a little more than this. I’d like to offer an alternative approach to beginning a retrospective: It is not a directive though, not a statement to publicly proclaim, it is simply a suggestion, something to quietly consider before dialog begins.

We are emotional and vulnerable beings, subject to a continuous flow of influences from a myriad of sources. Sometimes we perform magnificently, other times we mess up. Mostly we are somewhere between these extremes. In this last period of work everyone did what they did, and likely had reasons for doing so. Accept what is. And now, what can we learn from our past actions and thinking that will inform and guide our future ones?

We don’t always do our best. So let’s get real.


29 responses to “The Prime Defective

  1. A different take on the Prime Directive can be found here.

  2. Hi Tobias,

    I am working on writing about this, but it will take a little time. I know this because I’ve been trying to write it for a week or so, already. I’m hoping your post will help me finish. 🙂

    But first, would you mind clarifying something for me? In your comment on George’s post, I see you saying
    .. “This [prime directive] hurts me” and also
    .. “If you talk in terms of people ‘doing their best’ of course the natural opposite is ‘he could have done better’.”
    .. “I suggest dropping the term ‘best’ altogether. It has no meaning.”

    But in your post, I missed the “this hurts me” part. And I saw “When I reflect I want to be able to acknowledge that I didn’t do my best. I want to acknowledge that I acted badly sometimes” and “we don’t always do our best.”

    I have the sense that your comment on George’s blog gets more to the heart of what’s happening for you here. Does that seem right to you?


    • Perhaps, yes. I believe that to treat people in a condescending way (which I believe the wording of the prime directive encourages) does cause hurt. Perhaps not the “boo-hoo you hurt my feelings” kind of hurt, but the hurt that stirs deep down and then comes up in anger. The hurt from being talked down to, as if you are “less than”.

      We don’t need to speak down to people, or patronise them to create a positive environment for change (in fact it likely does the opposite). We simply need to acknowledge what is, and move on. Retrospectives (ineptly named) are actually about looking forward, not backwards. With skilled facilitation you don’t need to resort to such inoffensive, bland, hallmark-style phrases as the prime directive. You just have to be the change you want to create. And focus on what you can do, not what you did.

      A prayer comes to mind…
      God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
      Courage to change the things I can,
      And wisdom to know the difference.

  3. I agree with this as a way to describe what happens in a given period of work: “In this last period of work everyone did what they did, and likely had reasons for doing so. Accept what is. And now, what can we learn from our past actions and thinking that will inform and guide our future ones?” I think it more likely that people do what they do for reasons they believe make sense. That doesn’t make it “their best” but it does, at least, try to ackowledge some rationality in their perspective.

    I think acknowledging (or assuming) this says that any kind of blaming , suggesting people knew better and deliberately acted perversely, is pointless for improvement.

  4. I giggled like a schoolgirl when I read: “vapid nonsense”. Well put! The first principle of being kind, is to be true.

  5. I’m using the new non-directive in this post in my next retro. It’s way better and much more real.

    Thanks, Tobias!

  6. Tobias, yes, I called this a rant. Checking the dictionary to see if perhaps I’d used the word incorrectly, I find the definition “to scold vehemently” which seems to fit. I stand by that comment.

    I find a great difference between the best we can do at the moment under the circumstances, and the best we are capable of doing. I tried to make that distinction in

    You charge that the Prime Directive, and, by extension, the people who use it, are “in the pursuit of some kind of new-age political correctness,” patronizing, phony, and condescending. You charge Norm Kerth with ineptness for choosing the name that he did.

    I react to this blaming behavior with great sadness. I find this behavior deplorable. I believe you to be capable of treating people with more respect than you show here. Yet I continue to believe that you are doing the best you can, at this moment, under these circumstances. It puzzles me why you find that hurtful.

    You commented on my blog that this posting explains the reason “you are going out of your way to denigrate the Prime Directive.” I’ve re-read this several times and still don’t find that explanation. Do you think that people are supporting the sentiment of the Prime Directive to intentionally cause you pain?

    • > Yet I continue to believe that you are doing the best you can, at this moment, under these circumstances. It puzzles me why you find that hurtful.

      I find it utterly patronizing. And yes, to patronize someone is to hurt them. You are assuming a position of superiority, like a benevolent father-figure. What gives you the right? It is such behavior that creates, or perpetuates a paternalistic culture in organizations. Honestly George, you can keep it. I don’t need you to think I’m doing the best I can do. It doesn’t help anything. I don’t believe it anyway, which is why I say it is phony. Or just downright insulting: you say my behavior is deplorable and then say it is the best I can do. And you wonder why that might be hurtful.

      I have no issue with Norm Kerth writing this in the first place, and David Harvey (below) has reminded us of the context it was written in: the post-mortem context in a blaming culture. My issue is with how it is being used today, and the fact that it is a “directive”.

      David also goes on to say that if you feel the need to use this every two weeks you have some serious problems you are not addressing. You may do well to consider that, and to consider other approaches to facilitating retrospectives. But somehow I don’t feel that you’ll do that. You appear to treat the prime directive as if it is some kind of sacred artifact of Agile, never to be questioned or challenged. In such ways does fundamentalism begin.

  7. I think Scott’s comment puts it well. I can understand the motivation behind such a directive but agree it’s rather empty. I don’t know about insulting though, I just smile through such stuff – or try to!

    Also, is it possible that some individuals will respond to this message in the ‘positive’ way, as individuals we respond differently; I know some developers enjoy being ‘loved up’ by the project managers whereas I’d rather they stuck to the facts. Perhaps ‘loved up’ is the wrong expression…

  8. Tobias,

    I think, and you said this, it depends what we mean by ‘best’. If we consider ‘best’ together with ‘given the situation at hand’, I think we _can_ truly say that each person did the ‘best’ she could at the time. For example, I was feeling lousy, had low energy and delivered a poor result. Yet this was the best I could do _then_. I may do better tomorrow. And that’s OK.

    Less esoteric is the recognition that, in many organisations, we begin having to deal with a Theory X culture. And I think Norm Kerth’s “Prime Directive” provides a starting point to acknowledge where we are coming from. So I have no problem with opening many teams’ first ever retrospectives with this to create a small web of safety.


    • Hi Peter, I don’t get why we need to use the word “best” at all. It just becomes meaningless if we keep redefining it in every new context, and if George’s example of telling me I did my best while saying my behavior is deplorable is any indication, it is also insincere.

  9. While agreeing with the sentiment of the post, I think it’s important to remember the context in which Kerth developed the directive. Not the short regular retrospective of a small development team, but the end-of-project (often end-of-troubled-project) 2-day offsite retrospective, involving many more than a single small team, often with managers and others with line responsibility.

    If you feel the need of something like the prime directive to establish safety in a team of 6 people every two weeks, then you’ve definitely got a problem. As a way of creating a safe space for large group reflection with individuals and organisations who are not used to frank, open and honest discussion (and who find such discussion threatening and challenging) its perhaps not such a bad place to start.

    • David, thanks for the context reminder. It is important. It would appear the RPD is being used too unthinkingly, perhaps, in contexts it wasn’t designed for. That may explain some of my discomfort.

  10. Agree. We don’t always do our best.

  11. Agreed.

  12. George, what I see you refusing to understand (or maybe you are just unable to reconceive your world view) is the concept that saying “you did your best” is neither helpful nor meaningful when attached to all those “given that” clauses. Also, and perhaps more importantly it is a measure of value that I believe becomes patronizing in contexts where a person clearly hasn’t done a good job. It is truer, and more respectful to let the person acknowledge a job done badly, or an action made unthoughtfully. That doesn’t, as you seem to think, automatically imply judgment or a culture of blame. I would see this as a culture of acceptance, a down-to-earth culture that doesn’t need a pop-psychology approach to improve moral. There are such cultures, and where there are not, we can help to form them — with an approach rooted in respect for what is true. I personally don’t believe the RPD is the best tool for the job, and feel that sometimes it could do more harm than good. Hence my post on the topic.

    It is good to challenge the staus quo from time to time, and I am sorry that it makes you respond as you do. My intent with this article is to create an awareness in people as to how the RPD might be heard by others, and offer an alternative approach, or at least an opportunity to pause for thought. Somehow that seems to threaten you. I don’t really understand why it does. So, like you, I remain puzzled. And we don’t need to resolve this. The world is better for having different perspectives.

    • I think I might have found a root of the misunderstanding. The way the Prime Directive is meant to be used is *not* to tell others “you did your best”. It is meant to be used for ourselves: “He did his best under the circumstances. Now, how can I help improving the circumstances, so that his best is better next time?” If you will, it is about accepting shared responsibility for every team member’s “best”.

      I find that mindset to be quite helpful, even when applying it to myself. Before I discovered the PD for myself, I often chastised myself for not doing my best. And I told myself I had to do better next time. Of course that didn’t work. Now, when I apply the PD to myself, I accept that that was the best I could do under those circumstances, and then start thinking about what to do to the circumstances that my best is better next time.

  13. Hi Tobias.

    In general I like the tone of your alternative statement. Perhaps the first phrase is suitable for your west-coast environment, but being very far from there, it feels like yet another awkward introduction, and I would be sure to paraphrase it in a way that works for my audience… this kind of “making it fit the culture” seems a good idea to me, and it seems that is also what you are doing. Perhaps we should even ask groups to paraphrase their own version of this statement so it makes sense in their cultural context and more naturally helps them work together effectively.

    With regard to your comment on “disrespect”, I have not encountered this feeling in using it. In my experience, the Prime Directive in no way stops you from saying “I see now that I didn’t do my best then“. I really do believe that people acted out what they believed was best “then”… maybe not best for you or me, but best for them, given… all the givens of their context. Which we do not need to examine (though they themselves might want to at some point!).

    One thing the statement does do is ask me not to say “you screwed up/slacked off/didn’t do your best…”. No blaming of others. Only moving forward based on facts like “when you did x, I experienced y. Next time could we do it differently?” I think this effect, of removing blamd, is important to create safety to examine the facts and outcomes.

    I wonder if you saw this InfoQ item a few years ago? Here’s an excerpt from
    Question: … how can we possibly use this practice when the top execs in our organization are under investigation for fraud? Or when everyone knows there’s a slacker or malicious malcontent on the team?
    Rising’s response: The Prime Directive is not about reality. It’s about enabling the brain to focus elsewhere, just for a short time, in order to maximize learning… ” I expect your “Accept what is” serves the same purpose.

    Down with blame, and up with learning! If I can find tools that help do this, I will use them. Until now, one of these has been the Prime Directive. And let’s keep improving those tools, too! 🙂


  14. Hi Deb,

    > In general I like the tone of your alternative statement.
    Thanks 🙂
    >Perhaps the first phrase is suitable for your west-coast environment…
    Well, actually I am from London. I would use the same phrase there.
    > … this kind of “making it fit the culture” seems a good idea to me
    It may do, yes. Although sometimes we need to just speak our own truth in a language that works for us. If we are authentic our message is heard. Sometimes there is a danger of talking down, or compromising when we try to “making it fit the culture”. I am a little wary of that.

    > Down with blame, and up with learning!

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll go and read the InfoQ article now.

  15. Hi again Deb. Funny, but I not only read that infoQ article when it was first published, but commented on it too, coincidentally in dialog with Ilja Preuss 🙂 This is one of the things I said… “The ideas of belief in others, trust, and respect should be applied every day, all the time, not just at the retrospective. I like to think that is what I do, which is why (perhaps) I have never actually used the prime directive in a retrospective. The same concepts are just sort of implicit.” I stand by that statement.

    And I also see that I read Dale Emery’s The Responsibility Razor at that time. Funny how good ideas sometimes need reiterating (and reiterating, and reiterating…) to stick.

  16. Fully agree! The prime directive to me is HONESTY and not an excuse for anyone

    P.S.: nice to see you this blog back again 🙂

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  18. @Ilja. Thanks for coming back and reading again! I’m glad that the RPD is a useful tool for you, and now I understand how it is. Different tools for different personalities I guess, as even though I understand what you are saying, I don’t relate. This for example:

    > I told myself I had to do better next time. Of course that didn’t work.
    For you, “of course”. For me it does work.

    When I do something poorly, I reflect. I (implicitly) say: take a different approach next time, be more cautious, be kinder, wait before responding, have more courage, watch for old patterns, etc. etc. And then in the next similar situation I try to act on that. I don’t need to claim I did my best. It doesn’t add much.

    As you say, sometimes it is the environment that needs changing. But more often, I find, it is me.

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  22. Hi, here are some more cents:
    You write “I always do my best.”
    Right. RIGHT!
    You write “But taking it to its logical extreme, if I abuse someone, am I doing my best “given that I was angry at the time”… and if I kill someone, am I doing my best “given that I needed [money|revenge|drugs] at the time”?”

    Yes, but go first steps first, this is a very advanced case. (And no: Money, drugs, revenge are strategies, not needs. Safety, respect or competence are examples of needs. Please see:

    You write „”Clearly the term ‘“best’” becomes meaningless.“”
    No. Not at all.
    Why do I do things that I regret afterwards. Because I was stupid? No.
    In the moment of regret I have needs. And what I have done does not help to meet those needs now.
    But in the past moment other needs were alive in me, such strong needs, that the things I’ve done were the best I could do (with the then given experience etc.) This isn’t an excuse!
    The prime directive can root us to the needs of those that have done the things we’re talking about in a retro. It can help you to get their perspective.
    It helps to get rid of enemy images, to see the past actions in connection with past needs & feelings.
    Our chances are better to learn from the past if we can connect to those needs & feelings.
    If I ignore this ‘why’, chances are good that I will be overwhelmed by those needs and feelings again.

    You write “„When I reflect I want to be able to acknowledge that I didn’’t do my best.“”
    No, you want to be REALLY honest.
    It is quite crucial for this to see what was alive in you at a given moment. The question is not whether it was the best or not, but WHY it was the best.
    If I blame what I’ve done I begin to reject myself.
    But to have a chance for a real change, I have to embrace what I am. Then and now. ALL. PARTS. This is possible when I add “new” things to my focus. I had these and those needs, but I also have these needs.
    I try to discover a new way of doing things, so that I can meet/ fulfill all these needs instead of only some of them.
    One last point: There is no objective perspective. My actual perspective is as much “nonobjective” as my perspective was then and will be later.
    If I go logically into the extreme, I would therefore highly mistrust my actual thinking, my now made conclusions, my current judgments etc.
    That would lead me to a point where it becomes difficult for me to commit to changes.
    But if I accept, that this moment right now is not better then the moment I want to reflect about, I can make steps. And to recognise, that I do the „best“ now and that I have done the „best“ then can help me with this.

    BtW: Thank you for “The People’‘s Scrum”.

    A Transformer

  23. Just saw this comment. Thanks. I’m not much of a fan of NVC, and the needs list you link to is just simply overwhelming. I find this one much more succinct, and on the nail: It also includes our natural resources to meet those needs, which is particularly helpful.

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