Bearing in mind that there are many factors of which I am unaware.

Last week I was corresponding with Esther Derby on the use of the Prime Directive in retrospectives, and how some people express difficulty in accepting it. She followed up that discussion with an excellent post titled “Are you doing your best?,” where she lists many reasons why someone may be doing their best under the circumstances, though not doing their peak work. When I saw that, I shelved the article I’d been writing on the topic. It’s remained on my mind, however, and I still have a bit to say about it.

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.

— Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews

Many people seem to focus on the “best job they could” part, and feel that if someone made a mistake, they could have (and should have) done better. Esther lists lots of reasons why, in the particular circumstances of the moment, that person might not have been able to do better. I’ll argue the same point from a different angle.

Let’s consider that the actions in question are in the past. They’re not in the present, where we may make choices. They’re not in the future, where we may speculate a wide range of behaviors. These actions are in the past and caught like ants in amber by the irreversible flow of time.

In the book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is taken to the planet Tralfamadore, whose inhabitants can wander through the fourth dimension as willfully as we can through the first three.

“We know how the Universe ends—” said the guide, “and Earth has nothing to do with it, except that it gets wiped out, too.”

“How—how does the Universe end?” said Billy.

“We blow it up, experimenting with new fuels for our flying saucers. A Tralfamadorian test pilot presses a starter button, and the whole Universe disappears.” So it goes.

“If You know this,” said Billy, “isn’t there some way you can prevent it? Can’t you keep the pilot from pressing the button?”

“He has always pressed it, and he always will. We always let him and we always will let him. The moment is structured that way.”

I don’t advise taking this attitude toward the future, but for the past, it’s the only attitude that makes sense to me. The past is what it is. We may accept it, or refuse to do so. We may lie about it, but we can’t change it.

As we look back on that unchangeable moment, we may still think, “I should have done such-and-such. I knew it at the time, but I didn’t do it. I could have, and I should have.” What good does this do us? It may make us feel bad about ourselves. Or, being the high-achievers that we are, it may steel our resolve to do better in the future. Either way, it doesn’t equip us with the knowledge of how to do better in the future, because it doesn’t uncover the reasons why we didn’t do better in the past.

We may apply the same attitude toward someone else, “He should have done such such-and-such. He should have known it. He could have done better and he didn’t.” Now we’ve compounded the problems even more. By blaming the other person, we incite defensiveness on their part. Perhaps anger or shame, too. We pile unhelpful emotions onto the situation, burying the facts we need to see. And we poison our relationship with the other person, destroying trust in both directions.

Pretend for a moment that today your wife has torn off one of the garage doors; if you repeatedly say, in an appropriate tone, “She shouldn’t have done that,” you will become aware of increasing tension and anger. Conversely, if you then say, “Considering everything I know about my wife, and bearing in mind that there are many factors of which I am unaware, since the event has already occurred, it is obvious that today is the day that my wife should have torn off the garage door!” you will note a prompt, definite decrease in your unpleasant emotion, as well as a simultaneous correction of the rise in your gastric acidity, serum free fatty acids, and cholesterol. The first statement is contrary with reality; the second is in strict accord with reality. Nothing about this is intended to indicate that you should be pleased about the accident, nor is there any interdiction of action on your part to prevent a recurrence; the main consideration is the avoidance of behaviors which are harmful to yourself as well as your marital rapport.

— Wallace C. Ellerbroek, MD, “Language, Thought, & Disease”, The CoEvolution Quarterly, No. 17, Spring 1978, page 33.

“Bearing in mind that there are many factors of which I am unaware.” What excellent advice that is! It’s those very factors that we want to discover.

As we examine that boneheaded move that our colleague made, we want to tread very lightly so that we remain respectful of the person. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

  • Maybe there’s some bit of knowledge or skill that our colleague is missing, and this might be easily corrected.
  • Maybe there’s some perverse interaction in the way we do things that encourages things to go awry. With some root-cause analysis and systems thinking, we might be able to prevent a whole family of future problems.
  • Maybe there’s some factor of which we are unaware, and upon learing that factor, we decide that our colleagues action wasn’t so bone-headed after all.

Maybe, just maybe, following the Prime Directive will save us from looking stupid.

In any event, if we intend to learn from the past rather than score “points” against another in the present, the Prime Directive just makes plain good sense.

Edit 3/29/2021: updated dead links to

9 Replies to “Bearing in mind that there are many factors of which I am unaware.”

  1. If you talk in terms of people “doing their best” of course the natural opposite is “he could have done better”.

    I suggest dropping the term “best” altogether. It has no meaning. In most situations, I didn’t do my best, or my worst, I just did what I did. And I can learn from what I did to guide my future actions. No value judgments. It is a wholly different approach to valuing a person. But I feel that in all our discussions on this you don’t want to hear about other approaches.

    I am a voice that says “This [prime directive] hurts me”. And you choose not to hear, but only to tell me I don’t understand. And worse, you cast my objection as a rant.

    Are you thus not immediately undermining your own directive?

  2. Tobias, I’ve said this before to you. I understand that there is some reason you are going out of your way to denigrate the Prime Directive. I don’t know what that reason is. I know that our discussions on the topic are not productive.

    You say that I choose not to hear. I say that I listen, but do not understand. Whey I try to explain the ways in which what you way do not match what I see, you make these accusations again. I think that I do not know how to explain to you. I’m sorry it triggers you to be angry with me.

    You have not asked me for advice, so I’m not trying to explain the Prime Directive to you. (It’s Norm Kerth’s, by the way, not mine.)

  3. > I don’t know what that reason is.
    Erm, I just wrote about that on my blog. Maybe you didn’t read it. I have read many things in praise of the “prime directive”. Nothing so far has convinced me it is a good way to open a retrospective. It is reasonable, and it is well-intended. There are other ways that may work too.

    After over five years of trying to “grok” (Ron Jeffries’ term) the prime directive I still don’t, and I begin to wonder if perhaps there are others too who find this statement makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps someone needs to speak out and challenge it. I chose to do that.

    To respond by telling me (again) that I don’t understand isn’t helpful. You may start with “you don’t understand the prime directive in the way I understand it”. That feels like a better opening for dialog.

  4. I always use the Prime Directive when I facilitate a retrospective for a group at the first time. Often enough, there is someone in the group who feels uncomfortable about it. That’s fine with me. In fact, it leads to very valuable discussions. When that happens, the Prime Directive has done a good job, in my opinion.

  5. I once knew Wally (Ellerbroek) mentioned above. He went to medical school near where I lived at the time. (1971) An amazing & fascinating person. You could never forget him. Very kind & intelligent. He LIVED his philosophy.

    I wonder if he is still alive and well, since he would be in his 90’s now.

    Can anyone tell me where he is and what he is doing now? Thanks very much.
    — January 8, 2013

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