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Applying the Prime Directive beyond the retrospective

Anyone who has ever worked in an agile project and participated in a team retrospective should have heard the Prime Directive. It’s an integral part of the retrospective “assuring that a retrospective has the right culture to make it a positive and result oriented event.”

In my years of experience, I’ve unfortunately recognized that the Prime Directive is often handled as a side note, or even worse, forgotten entirely.

I believe that the Prime Directive establishes the base for an open, respectful communication during the retrospective and thus is the key for an outcome-oriented, engaging and positive meeting. Furthermore, I truly believe that the Prime Directive should be at the fundamental core of all communication and collaboration within our teams — and wherever possible should be reflected across the entire organization. Individually, the Prime Directive should be our own personal mantra — manifested in our heads, applied to our conduct of life. In this blog post, I explain why.

The Prime Directive sets the boundaries for collaboration. It’s a thought-provoking impulse reminding us always to start a conversation with a positive intent: the honest belief that everyone strives to be successful and contributes to an overarching goal. It’s the strong faith that no one actively wants to hurt an individual or block the success of a team. We’re entirely accepting that we’re all human beings; that we are all impacted by our experience, our capabilities, our personal situation or other external factors. We do all have different personalities — but, we’re all imperfect and we all make mistakes from time to time.

With this in mind, by frequently repeating the Prime Directive, we’re more likely to have a respectful and empathic conversation. We’re more open to step into someone's shoes. It helps us to understand other points of views and will stop us from making prejudgments. The Prime Directive reminds us: focus on hard facts rather than subjective feelings and assumptions; don’t blame each other. This ensures an objective assessment of our situation, problems, and upcoming challenges.

Create high-performing teams by establishing a safe team environment

Consistent use of the Prime Directive helps create a safe environment for the individuals within a team. When we feel safe, when we lose the fear of being judged or attacked, we’re more comfortable in sharing ideas, challenges, or even mistakes — and this builds trust.

Admitting that every organization, every project, and every single individual has a potential to improve — instead of pretending everything is perfect — is the starting point to improving your ability to reflect and learn. The fear of mistakes makes way for the passion to improve and grow. We’re more open to ask questions or share feedback — and we’re more willing to listen to it. The honest belief that everyone can contribute to success allows us to access a variety of ideas and options to improve. When we feel safe, we’re more willing to contribute. Our team gets stronger and more resilient, more innovative and courageous, and will, finally, perform better.  

Mitigate conflicts by creating a good communication climate

Every attempt of our interaction takes place within a communication climate. The communication climate is the social tone of a relationship. It’s created by the way we feel about each other, how we interact and how we express our relationship verbally and non-verbally. A good communication climate enhances our ability to connect, to overcome differences (for example personalities, values or goals) and supports collaboration within our team. Applying the Prime Directive as a personal and as a team’s attitude, supports a good, stable communication climate. The Prime Directive aims for increasing empathy and sensitivity and retains objectivity and distance. These are the skills we need to have to handle conflicts successfully.

Furthermore, following the Prime Directive enables us to determine the intensity and the scale of a conflict: having a positive basic attitude we are more likely to be kind and courteous and will be able to clear some clouds before they become a storm. We’re more likely to detect conflicts in the early stages rather than denying them until they are conspicuous. We’re more open to find a solution rather than defending our opinion or scoring a point against a team member. Summarizing: we’re mitigating the number and the impact of conflicts in our team.

Improve personal growth by using the Prime Directive as a working hypothesis

The Prime Directive doesn't have to be used only as a lodestar, guiding us in the retrospective or our overall collaboration. It can also be used as a great tool to make an objective, fruitful self-assessment. For that, it’s worth to rephrase the statement and applying it as a working hypothesis onto the personal situation:

“I did the best job I could, given what I knew at the time, my skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Especially in challenging situations (but also for regular checks), this statement can be the starting point for further investigations: “Am I really doing the best job I can do? If not: what stops me from doing it? Do I have enough knowledge/ information for it? Do I have the right capabilities, the right tools? What can I influence? Where do I need support? What can I do to improve?”

Asking those questions helps me personally to analyse my situation more objectively and not fall into the trap to find self-excuses or let myself be dominated by my biggest critic — myself. It gives me the chance to identify my needs and goals, and phrase them into precise words. It’s a good starting point to translate the findings into actionable tasks I can follow up, as well as it enables me to communicate my aims and needs to my team, mentor or manager.

Applying the personalized Prime Directive helps me to get a clearer picture of my potential to grow and share it with the people around me. It improves my personal development process.  

Apply the Prime Directive to develop the environment you want to live in

Now and then I hear things like “The Prime Directive doesn’t match reality,”; “I know that not everybody is doing the best job they can,”; or “The Prime Directive is utopia — not reachable,” Sometimes, this is true: we’re human beings, we’re emotional, sometimes we act foolishly or selfishly. We’re living and working in complex, sometimes contradictory environments. But — and this is a really big, bold, blinking “but” —, living the Prime Directive, using it as a mantra to make ourselves present regularly, is a personal decision each of us can make: I can decide to start every day with good intentions. I can have a positive attitude to my teammates and my own self. I can open the door for a mutual communication to lower the barriers in interhuman relations and build up a trustful collaboration.

Every one of us can contribute to a safe, inspiring and supporting environment — an environment we like to work in, and we can evolve in. The important thing is to make the first step and apply the Prime Directive to our own life. Don’t wait for others, take the initiative and start now!

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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