Exhaustion is Not a Status Symbol

In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, Brene Brown shares her 10 Guideposts of Wholehearted Living. Number 7 on that list is “Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth”. This resonates strongly with the 8th agile principle about sustainable pace. 

In the world of Scrum software development, it is all too easy to get caught up in pumping out user stories and increasing velocity sprint after sprint, but what does that type of hamster wheel mentality do to us physically, mentally, and spiritually? For that matter, what impact does it have on our products? Are we building fast things, or the right things? Are we making time to dream up big, new ideas and/or to build a cohesive team around our mission? 

“I didn’t leave work until 8pm.”

“I missed my daughter’s dance recital for this project.”

“I’ve been pulling 16 hour days for 2 weeks straight.” 

“I can’t believe she left as 5:30pm. I was still here for 3 more hours!”

“We’re going to make this sprint goal if it kills us.”

There is danger when exhaustion becomes a status symbol — for our organizational culture, our teams, and ourselves. There are specific risks of inadvertently creating a competitive exhausted culture within an agile transformation, and ways in which we can leverage the agile values and principles in order to mitigate those risks. We have to take the time to look inward, assessing our own attitudes and views about work life balance. 

The 8th agile principle says: “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

Work-life balance is a buzzword that we throw around, but how often does the culture of an organization support exactly the opposite? Hero culture is rewarded, and our output is viewed as a measure of our worth on performance reviews. We set out to transform the world of work with agile and with Scrum;yet I’ve heard the Scrum sprint cycle described as a “hamster wheel” -an endless conveyor belt of backlog and sprint reviews that the developers cannot escape. This is not congruent with what we read in the agile values and principles. 

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Take the time to discuss what sustainable pace means for your team
  • Develop working agreements that address sustainable pace
  • Embrace estimation as a method to empower the team
  • Treat Sprints as a heartbeat, not a constant death march
  • Not only avoid but reject the hero culture
  • Speak up as team members and leaders
  • Evaluate the organizational processes and structures

I’m interested in inspiring a discussion about the pitfalls of a competitive exhausted culture, and how we in the Scrum community, even with the best of intentions, could be “accidentally responsible” for continuing to spin the hamster wheel. Although hero culture has been discussed before, if we have addressed our own potential culpability in creating it.  We need to make sure that the principles and practices of Scrum are being used for good, not for evil. 


If you are interested in learning how to create a sustainable pace for yourself, your team, and your organization, join me at the 2018 Toronto Agile Community Conference on Oct 30th for my talk on “Exhaustion is not a Status Symbol”. Explore how Scrum practices, used properly, can enable a sustainable pace.