01 April 20213 min read

Does believing in the prime directive make you vulnerable?

Sebastian Hoelscher
Written by

Sebastian HoelscherProduct Owner

Does believing in the prime directive make you vulnerable?

Some thoughts about agile, safety, trust and rugby

"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."

For a long time, every single retro started with someone reading this out loud, followed by a safety check. In the beginning this felt odd, like some weird company hymn that is to be sung at the start of each workday to get everyone in the mood and the spirit, but it took just a short time for me to realize it is not.

More than at any other point of time in a SCRUM or SCRUMish (sorry for making you cringe) framework, retros and postmortems bear a conflict potential. In these discussions, you address (or should address) things, that could or should have been done differently. And this might include things that other people did or said. Of course, at least in retros, you also discuss the things that went well and should be continued, but retros where the world is a pure pink unicorn playground have from my experience proven to contribute less to team and personal growth.

Conflicts as such are not at all a bad thing, should therefore not be tried to be avoided (you will utterly fail trying this anyways), but they must be managed properly. And one of the most fundamental attitudes of conflict managements is assuming that whatever the opposing party did or said, from their perspective at that moment it appeared to be the right thing to do. This means giving anyone an advance credit in terms of “I believe you do not want to cause harm” – until, of course, proven differently.

Translated into a retro context,

  • “A” was done with good intentions
  • “B” should have been done from someone else’s perspective, also having good intentions
  • The discussion around A or B should be led accepting that both perspectives are valid, and A, B, AB or even C can be valid outcomes of what is discovered during a discussion.

This is how it should be, and in an environment where the above is in place, believing in the prime directive might make you vulnerable but will not get you harmed. It leads to a mature, civilized discussion culture that is a great place to learn and grow in.

But as hinted above, the world is not a pink unicorn playground. And people sometimes do things which they know are wrong, others might see any harm done as acceptable collateral damage for a bigger (often their very own) cause, or justify their harmful actions with assumed wrongdoings of others, forgetting that two wrongs don’t make a right. Once you have someone in your team who deliberately does things with malicious intent or neglects important tasks, an unconditional belief in the prime directive will not only make you vulnerable, but you’ll actually get hurt in one way or the other. And as soon as that happens, the Prime Directive can no longer be your guideline, safety is gone and growth is suppressed. So, what now?

The most successful rugby team on this planet, the All Black from New Zealand, are most known for two things: The Haka, a quite impressive and rather intimidating opening ceremony replacing their National Anthem before a match, and secondly The No Asshole Rule. While, if you haven’t until now, you should definitely watch a video of the former and then decide to what extent this also contributes to the team’s success (watch the counter reaction of the other teams), the latter is what I want to focus on here. This rule can be summarized in the following way: no matter how brilliant a rugby player you are, if you don’t act as a team player, you are out. Or don’t even get in for that matter. No one is bigger than the team and everyone can rely on and trust each other.

In a team setup having this rule in mind, being vulnerable does not at the same time mean you are getting hurt. Yes, there will be conflicts, misunderstandings and mistakes, but you can actually truly believe that everything was done with the best intentions and learn from the findings that are the outcomes of mature, open and fair discussions. Vulnerability then is actually not a defect anymore. If an environment does not provide this level of safety, growth, speed, and quality will inevitably take a hit and the only way to deal with this is either removing the root cause for this or yourself from the team.

So yes, believing and living the Prime Directive will make you vulnerable, but it’s other things that will make being vulnerable a harmful thing.

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