The Retrospective Prime Directive

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.

and in German:

Egal was wir heute herausfinden, wir wissen und glauben ernsthaft, dass jeder sein bestes gegeben hat entsprechend seines Wissens, seiner Fähigkeiten, der zur Verfügung stehenden Mittel, und der aktuellen Situation.

I’ve been a fan and user of Norman Kerth’s retrospective prime directive for many years. Every now and then I will start retrospectives with a reading and short discussion about the prime directive. It serves as a reminder of the state of mind that we need to achieve to get the best value out of retrospectives. The very act of reading and discussing it helps us to get to this state.

I often follow this by a short discussion on working agreements. Again Norman Kerth has some excellent advice as a starting point:

  • We will try not to interrupt.
  • We will accept everyone’s opinion without judgment.
  • We will talk from our own perspective, and not speak for anyone else.
  • If someone is holding the “talking coffee mug,” then only that person may speak.
  • There will be no jokes about other people in the room.
  • These ground rules can be amended after any break.


Radical Management Workshop in Berlin with Stephen Denning

Making the Entire Organization Agile

Learn the Biggest Secret in Management Today

Radical Management

I am delighted to announce a very special event in Berlin.

On July 9th-11th, Stephen Denning will be leading this workshop drawing on his award-winning book, “The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management”, his path-breaking work in leadership storytelling and long managerial background as a director at the World Bank. Simon Roberts, ScrumCenter CEO and Certified Scrum Trainer, will be co-teaching.

Just over a decade ago, a set of major management breakthroughs occurred. These breakthroughs enabled software development teams to achieve both disciplined execution and continuous innovation, something that was hitherto impossible to accomplish with traditional management methods.

Over the last decade, these management practices, under various labels such as Agile, Scrum, Kanban and Lean, have been field-tested and proven in thousands of organizations around the world. Radical Management? distills, builds on and extends these principles, practices and values so that the entire organization can now achieve to apply the magic combination of disciplined execution and continuous innovation.

Who Should Attend

  • Agile leaders and coaches wanting to convert the entire organization to Agile
  • Business leaders needing to understand Agile management or achieve continuous innovation
  • Entrepreneurs wanting to grow their startups without losing agility


Please register here or email Early bird and group prices (early bird until 15th June) are available.

More Information

Please visit for more information.

10 Mistakes that (some) Managers Make

1. Putting Most of their Energy Into Avoiding Getting Blamed

The main objective for some managers is to avoid getting blamed for a problem. The result is that they reduce transparency and that decision makers are not able to make rational decisions because the information that they get is misleading.

This is a deep cultural problem in many organisations. If organisations are serious about becoming learning organisations they need to foster a no blame culture so that managers and teams are encouraged to make problems visible.

2. Not Focussing on Value Generation

Incentives or personal targets are often not aligned with generating value (by delighting the customer). Inappropriate objectives (e.g. on-time delivery) can result in dysfunctional outcomes such as launching a product when it is not ready, resulting in increased cost-of-ownership and unhappy customers.

3. Controlling Instead of Supporting

If there is a problem with the work of a team, the response of some managers is to put more controls in place. A better solution would to ask the team what they need to be able to work more effectively. If we focus on creating radical transparency and supporting teams, we won’t need so many energy sapping controls.

4. Watermelon Green

Traffic light or RAG (red, amber, green) status reports are common in larger organisations. High blame organisations often have an unofficial fourth status — watermelon green — i.e. green (everything fine) on the outside (political level) and red (serious problems) inside. When this happens senior managers don’t get the information that they need to make rational decisions.

5. Laissez-faire

Servant leadership doesn’t mean laissez-faire. Good managers need to show that they are interested in a team’s work. They should practice “management by walking about” or doing the “Gemba walk”. In a Scrum context, this could mean observing daily stand-ups, taking active part in sprint reviews and making it clear to the team that the manager’s door is always open in case they need support.

6. Belief in Perfect Resource Planning

Knowledge-based, creative work (such as most product development) is complex. It is not possible to plan in detail who should do what and when they should do it. Many managers persist in their belief of perfect plans and that the route to better efficiency is to maximize “resource” utilization. I’ve seen organizations where managers have daily resource re-planning meetings – they hang on to the belief that they just need to plan better. Instead they should focus on putting together great teams, supporting them and letting them get on with the work.

7. Belief in Top-Down Standardization

Some managers believe that the organization will be more efficient if tools, practices and processes can be standardized. This is rarely the case — the people doing the work are usually the best people to decide how they work and what they need to get the work done. Managers can play an important role in helping to spread innovations and other knowledge created by teams, e.g., by fostering communities of practice.

8. Belief that Trust has to be Earned

Effective teams need trust within the team and between team and manager (in both directions). Patrick Lencioni shows (in The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team) how teams cannot reach their potential without trust. Managers need to take the first step by being vulnerable, even if they are inwardly skeptical.

9. Just Paying Attention to Technical Skills When Building a Team

Highly effective teams need diversity of personality preferences as well as technical skills. Diversity of personality preference is important because it enables the key team roles (e.g. as described by Belbin) to be covered more effectively. Many managers just focus on technical skills.

10. Hiring People Who Are Too Much Like Themselves

Many managers hire people who are similar to themselves in background and personality. As a result departments lack the diversity that would enable them to become more effective.

Using the Cartoon Story Board Technique in Retrospectives

Cartoon Story Board

Cartoon Story Board (also called Comic Story Board) is one of my favourite creativity techniques and it can be used to good effect in retrospectives. I have used it in the “setting the stage” phase of retrospectives to help a team to frame the key question to be tackled during the retrospective, and for helping to generate ideas when deciding what to do differently in the future.

It is useful in the following contexts:

Teams in conflict, retrospectives, futurespectives, problem reframing during the “problem definition” phase of Buffalo style Creative Problem Solving (CPS).

The procedure that I use is:

  1. The facilitator draws the grid and lays out the paper on a table at which the participants are sitting.
  2. The participants draw a representation of the current situation in the first cell.
  3. The participants draw a representation of an ideal state in the last cell.
  4. The participants imagine that they are looking back from a future time represented by cell 6 and draw a representation of the first step that was taken to make things better in cell 2.
  5. The participants draw a representation of how it was just before they reached the cell 6 time in cell 5.
  6. The participants fill in cells 3 and 4.

From here it is usually a short step to problem/question reframing (ask the participants “what is the key problem that we have identified here?”). Alternatively or in addition, the technique can be followed by braining storming, clustering and dot voting to generate ideas for action.

The Anatomy of a Release Retrospective

Retrospective Bridge

As Scrum practitioners, we are used to short and sharp retrospectives at the end of each Sprint. Sprint retrospectives, taking 1-2 hours, can yield valuable results, enabling the Scrum team to improve its process. Typically these retrospectives yield lots of ideas, which are then prioritised and only the top 2-3 are actually actioned.

I If we only hold short retrospectives, we may be missing out on discovering further ways to optimise our  work. A longer retrospective, at the end of a release or other milestone,  enables problems and solutions to be explored in more detail.

I was asked to facilitate a 2-day retrospective for a client who had started to use Scrum some 5 months beforehand. They had just released the first major version of their product since the introduction of Scrum and wished to bring all 6 Scrum teams together for a retrospective.

Grabbing my well-worn copy of Esther Derby’s and Diana Larsen’s “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great”, I started to plan the retrospective. For this longer-than-normal retrospective, I also found Norman Kerth’s “Project Retrospectives” helpful when selecting the activities and for general advice. I also had the opportunity to discuss the retrospective with the renowned agile coach, Rachel Davies whilst I was planning it – thanks Rachel for your support and advice.

I decided to structure the retrospective using Esther and Diana’s 5-phase model, using the following techniques:

  • Set the stage
    • Prime directive
    • Art gallery
  • Gather data
    • Timeline
    • Seismograph
  • Generate insights
    • Clustering
    • Dot voting
  • Decide what to do
    • Open space
    • SMART actions
  • Close
    • Give appreciation/ball of wool

The retrospective was further structured in terms of past (first day) and future (second day). I drew my interpretation of Rachel’s retrospective bridge (from Rachel’s book “Agile Coaching”) to help the teams to understand this relationship.

Day 1 – Past

During the first day, we focussed on identifying the events and experiences from the past several months of work on the project (around 5 months for this retrospective).

Phase – Set the stage

Technique – Prime Directive

I started by welcoming the participants and read the retrospective prime directive to them:

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 asked them to try to apply the folllowing rules:

  1. To try to not interrupt others
  2. To try to accept the opinions of others without judgement
  3. To talk from one’s own perspective, and not to talk for others
  4. To avoid jokes at the expense of others

I then explained the overall agenda (today past, tomorrow future), the 5 phase model and the activities that I had chosen for the 5 phases. I asked the participants to organize themselves into teams and gave them two choices: affinity teams based on their speciality (e.g. testers, managers, product owners, developers etc.), or Scrum teams. They chose to organize on the basis of affinity.

Technique – Art Gallery

For an opening activity, I chose Art Gallery:

The teams were given a single sheet of flip-paper and pens (a selection of colours). They were asked to draw a picture that represents “how was it to work on the project during this release”. Each team should produce a single picture, but without talking to oneanother.  Forbidding the use of verbal communication, forces the participants into a more right-brain cognitive style which can produce a picture that comes from intuition rather than rational thinking. In can be helpful in unlocking the creative potential of some.

The teams were given 30 minutes for this activity. At the end of the drawing phase, each team was given another 5 minutes to discuss the result and find a title for it. Finally, each team had 5 minutes to present their picture to all of the participants and the pictures were taped to the wall to form the “art gallery”.

Phase – Gather Data

Technique – Timeline

I choose “timeline” as the main techinique for gathering data about the release. This was prepared by covering a wall in white paper roll. A timescale was marked on the paper by dividing it horizontally into month segments. I created a horizontal stripe over the entire length of the timeline by drawing two horizonal lines in the bottom half of the timeline – for later use a seismograph indication of how people were feeling during the release.

I asked the teams to use yellow post-its to record events and other facts relating to the release. They were given 10 minutes for this and were asked to stick their post-its to the timeline, at a point which represents the time at which the event took place. After inviting the teams to visit the timeline and read what others had recorded, I invited them to use green post-its to record things that had worked well during the release – again they were asked to complete this in 10 minutes and stick the results to the timeline.

The teams were then asked to record:

  • Things that had not worked well / problems, using red post-its.
  • Things that puzzle them / potentially interesting themes where they desire more information, using blue post-its.

10 minutes was allowed for each phase and after completing their post-its, the participants were asked to stick their results to the timeline.

Technique – Seismograph

At the top left of the blank strip, I drew a happy face. At the bottom left I drew a sad face. I then asked each participant to draw a line which represented their satisfaction with the project at each point during the release, using the events on the timeline as a reminder.

Phase – Generate Insights

Technique – Clustering

With the help of the participants, and an agile coach, we clustered the post-its around common themes and named them. Each cluster contained typically a mixture of green, red and blue post-its, reflecting the different opinions of the participants. We clustered the hundreds of post-it around 9 named clusters.

Technique – Dot voting

I gave each participant 3 sticky dots and asked them to assign their “votes” to the clusters according to the importance of the cluster to them.

At the end of day 1 we had 9 clusters, prioritised by dot voting. These were taken forward to the “future” part of the retrospective, where the participants would decide how to optimise their teamwork.

Day 2 – Future

Phase – Decide what to do

Techniques – Open Space, SMART actions

Open space technology was used to discuss the themes (by now represented by clusters) discovered during day 1 and generate plans for addressing the issues.

First I explained the idea of open space and described the principles and rules. The participants built a market place of sessions (based on the clusters discovered during the previous day). I asked session leaders to make sure that the results were documented on flip-charts and asked the groups to try to create SMART actions as a result from each session (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely).

At the end of each of the morning and afternoon sessions, the participants presented the results to all of the other participants.

Phase – Close

Technique – Give appreciation

We closed the retrospective by forming a large circle. Holding the free end of a giant ball of wool in one hand, a starting person thanked another person and threw the ball of wool to that person. This was repeated until everyone had had received at least one appreciation. We then lay the resulting spider’s-web of wool on the floor and noted how strongly the teams were networked.


Podcast from Retrospective Facilitators Gathering in Taos, New Mexico

Back in April I attended the wonderful Retrospective Facilitators Gathering in the equally wonderful Taos, New Mexico. During the final evening I recorded a podcast with many of the gathering’s participants. The podcast took the form of an informal round table discussion and the topics included looking back at the gathering, externalizing thinking and group/collective learning.

Participants, in order of speaking:

John Martin, Esther Derby, Declan Whelan, George Dinwiddie, Oana Junco, Charlotte Malther, Simon Roberts, Diana Larsen, Josef Scherer, Grazyna Scherer, John McFadyen and Cyril Megard.