So there we have beanbags in the office, a foosball table in the coffee kitchen, and colorful sticky notes on the wall. You assigned the tasks on those notes independently within the team. You decided how much of your backlog for this year you would accomplish in the current sprint. We even hired a Scrum Master, who now moderates your daily and updates the status in JIRA. This, by the way, is a tedious job for him because not all have time for the daily due to various commitments in other projects. Admittedly, this is only the first agile pilot in our department, and some of the processes around it still need to be improved, but there is no reason not to feel as productive and fulfilled as you would at Spotify. You have to want it. It’s all just a matter of having the right agile mindset!
Or is it?
Those who feel too fat should go on a diet and exercise more. Anyone spending too much time on the smartphone and social media should do a Digital Detox and change their smartphone settings. Those who feel stressed, download an app and learn to meditate. Those who waste their working time with e‑mail, Slack, and meetings must learn to organize themselves better. And if you don’t make it from rags to riches, it’s your fault. With the necessary discipline, anything goes. After all, plenty of people have successfully mastered these challenges.
This optimistic view is perfidiously cruel. It ignores the deeper systemic causes of the significant and complex cultural problems, such as burnout, depression, and distraction by the attention industry, and offers seemingly simple individual solutions. While there are always people for whom these solutions have shown the promised benefits, these panaceas must fail for most because they begin at the wrong level. The historian Lauren Berlat coined the term cruel optimism for this phenomenon in the book of the same name (Berlat, 2011), which Johann Hari describes in (Hari, 2022, p. 143) thus:
This is when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture – like obesity, or depression, or addiction – and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon – but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.Johann Hari
The opposite of good is well-intentioned, they say. These easy solutions, beanbag chairs, and a bit of agile theater may be well-intentioned, but they miss the heart of the problems and, at the same time, blame the individual or the team for failure. Once again, we see how right Theodor W. Adorno was: “There is no right life within the wrong one.”
Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press, 2011.
Hari, Johann. Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022.