Johannes Thönes

Software-Developer, ThoughtWorker, Permanent Journeyman, Ruby Enthusiast, Java and Devils Advocate.

Prime Directive of a Personal Retrospective


In this article, I will write about the directives or rules you should put in place for yourself while doing a personal retrospective. This article is part of my Personal Retrospective Series - so read the other articles, if you want to learn more about personal retrospectives.

Norman Kerth Prime Directive

Norman Kerth - the author of “Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews” - formulated the following prime directive for retrospectives:

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.

This is true for team retrospectives. But it is true for your personal retrospective as well. I did adapt this directive a little bit for my personal retrospective. You can and should adapt it, too. A personal retrospective is your personal thing.

However, you should keep in mind, that a personal retrospective is not about blaming yourself, just like project or team retrospectives are not about blaming others.

This is hard, because we (or at least I) get easy in the mode of blaming ourselves. But by doing the retrospective, you need to accept that you cannot change the past. You will analyse it. And you will learn from it.

An example

So let me make an example. Let’s say I failed an exam - how would I treat this in a personal retrospective?

  • “Why did I fail the exam?”  - “Because I did not learn enough.”
  • “Why didn’t I learn enough?” - “Because I was lazy.”
  • “Why were I lazy?” - “Because I felt exhausted.”
  • “Why were you exhausted?” - “Because before I was doing  XYZ.”
  • (And so on ….)

The key here is to break the circle of blaming yourself. Especially when it comes to “I am to lazy” - which could be something other people might have said about you. Don’t fall into that trap! Nobody is harming himself and his goals on purpose.

As you can see, being positive about what you did does not mean you shy away from problems. You need to tackle problems. But to tackle them, you have to understand why the problem occured. You need to find the reason why you acted in some way. And than you can think about strategies, how to tackle the problems. Tackling might mean, to change things - or to stop expecting to much from yourself.

How to live Prime Directive

So, how do you make sure you really follow the prime directive in your retrospective?

The first step is to accept intellectually, that the this prime directive is the right strategy. You can do this by reading this article, as well as other resources on project and personal retrospectives.

If you have accepted it, the next step is to get it into your heart during the personal retrospective. I do this in two ways:

  • By calling it into mind during the retrospective. I do it by reading the prime directive aloud before the retrospective to myself. Or I write it on a paper and keep it visible during the whole retrospective. You could use other means, like writing it down every retrospectives or anything which is appropriate for you.
  • By experience you can convince yourself. If you practice the “the best you can” strategy as outlined in the example long enough, you may learn and therefore start to believe it. At least it worked for me. I found out, that  there is always a way to explain my actions afterwards - even if they seem strage at  the time.

Were can you learn more?

This article is the part of my Personal Retrospectives Series. I was strongly influence by other people – look at the Further Material section to find out more.