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.