C. Keith Ray

C. Keith Ray writes about and develops software in multiple platforms and languages, including iOS® and Macintosh®.
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Monday, March 23, 2015


(Originally posted 2003.Jun.12 Thu; links may have expired.)

Ron Jeffries has written on his discomfort with the Prime Directive of Project Retrosepectives here: http://www.xprogramming.com/xpmag/jatPrimeThis.htm.

The Prime Directive of Project Retrospectives is "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."

Jeffries writes:

We wound up, not in a "wonderful place", but in an OK place.... 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?

The prime directive isn't setting the stage to accept that nothing could be improved, it is to set the stage to look for improvements without getting stuck blaming people for what they or others think they did wrong. Once you're in fault-finding mode, everyone will try to defend themselves, trying to re-direct fault-finding onto others, and will stop sharing experiences that the group could be learning from.

We can apply Dale Emery's excellent essay "Creating Empathy" to the example posed in Ron's essay: Ron wrote some code non-test-first. It took longer than expected to debug, so that it could have been done test-first in the same amount of time. Why would he do this? He says that he had a deadline; people were asking "where the heck" is this code? He didn't know how to throw characters at the GUI code in his tests... and so on. His deeper reasons were to not let down those people; to deliver as soon as possible. The prime directive helps us assume the intentions were good, even though the results were not.

Perhaps a facilitator in a retrospective would remind the team to not worry too much why Ron didn't write that code test-first, and help them realize what the consequences were, and let the team identify things to do differently in the future.

I know of a "kick-butt" manager whose every question seems like an attack. When he says "Why did you do this?" It doesn't come out as "I'd sincerely like to understand reasons why someone would do this," it comes out as "Why would anyone be so stupid to do this?" This attitude is very demoralizing to his employees. He may not realize that when he focuses a barrage of these kinds of questions onto his employees, they become demoralized and ineffective for hours or days afterwards. This is not a way to keep the project work going smoothly. If the job market was better, many of those employees would quit.

If a retrospective was attempted with that "kick-butt" manager involved, I hope the facilitator would be strong and experienced enough to kick that manager out of the retrospective - no learning is going to happen otherwise.

The XP mailing list had many good responses to Ron's essay. To quote just one, George Dinwiddie wrote
The reason they didn't do a better job is perhaps not in the list of items you're considering (knowledge, skills and abilities, resources and situation) but certainly there was something that led them to do what they did. Of course, you can attribute it to their laziness or orneriness, but in my experience this tends to lead to non-productive confrontations.

It can be much more productive to search for what can be done better in the future rather than searching for the reason(s) that one couldn't do better in the past. Just because, for reasons that are not clear, this was the best I could do at the time, is no excuse to quit striving to do better in the future. And that striving can be done without identifying
character flaws or laying blame.
Ron asked what is the "second directive?" Several people identified that as talking about the future, identifying what things you would do in the future that would be different from what you did in the past.

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