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This post assumes you know what a retrospective is and focuses on an activity to set the stage challenging what Kert’s prime directive means to the group.

This is an 80% muted–no talking–activity to use at the start of your retro. It should last between 5 to 10 minutes.

Often the facilitator asks the group for a verbal yes to agree with Kerth’s prime directive. Most people can see its value but sometime you get a “yeaahh sure I agree… they did the best job they could” but what that person really thinks is “they did a really stinky job”.

Sometime people think that about themselves.

When to use the activity

I’d use this activity on groups new to Kerth’s prime directive or groups where an individual dismissed the directive.

The objective is to give time to the group to better understand the meaning of the sentence.

Before using this activity make sure you fully understand the directive yourself or it will be challenging to deal with questions from your group.

Activity introduction

The facilitator reads the prime directive and explains that by accepting it the group will make retrospective a more constructive and effective environment.

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.

Norm Kerth prime directive

Instead of asking the group for the directive acceptance with a verbal yes tell them we will spend a few minutes questioning the directive.

Give the group a minute or two to remember an episode in their previous job where they believe the prime directive could not be applied. Read the directive highlighting the givens portion:

  • given what was known at the time
  • given his or her skills and abilities
  • given the resources available
  • given the situation at hand

After the two minutes of thinking back–or less–ask them to summarize the episode on a post-it note. If people believe in the directive you can ask to summarize an episode where the directive was applicable.

Once done writing ask them to reflect on the factors that might have affected that episode:

  • what was known at the time of the episode/incident
  • what were that person’s–or group–skills and abilities
  • what resources–time, team size, bandwidth–were available
  • what was the situation at hand

Reflecting about these factors will help us gain a better understanding of the events we look during retrospective.

Activity debriefing

After reflecting on how these factors impacted the job done ask if they still think the best job wasn’t done given these factors or if perhaps they don’t know how to answer about these factors.

Now is the time to ask each participants if they accept the prime directive for today’s retrospective.

Skeptics in the group

Remind the group that it’s ok to still think the directive doesn’t apply to their episode.

Ask if they are ok sharing the episode with the group and try to understand the factors. Also acknowledge that sometimes there are extreme situations where individuals might purposely sabotaging projects and use an unprofessional conduct.

Ask them if they are ok putting aside their biases and accept the directive for the duration of today’s retrospective.

If they accept thank them. If they still refuse–even just for today’s retro–there must be a deeper issue that needs to be tackled.

If it’s an individual I’d say continue the retrospective and keep an eye on his/her behavior and follow-up one-on-one afterwards.

If the majority of the group feels that way it’s better to call the retrospective off and investigate further on the root cause of that tension.


Retrospectives are the most important part of an iteration and changing their format is imperative to keep people engaged.

If people understand Kerth’s prime directive printing it out and reminding people about it is usually enough.

When people are new to Kerth’s prime directive it’s good to explain it and challenge it instead of getting a–often disengaged–verbal yes.

Before trying this activity make sure you fully understand the directive there is another great post about questioning the directive with input from though leaders in the retrospective community.

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Enrico Teotti

agile coach, (visual) facilitator with a background in software development and product management since 2001 in Europe, Australia and the US.

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