The Cruel Side of Agile

Longing for simple solutions on the individual level in the face of complex problems may be understandable and seem optimistic. Still, it is just cruel because the likely failure will also be attributed to the individuals and their "mindset."

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.

Share This Post


Monique 11. November 2022 Reply

Wow! Great arti­cle. So true!

Marcus Raitner 11. November 2022 Reply

Thank you very much, Monique!

Silke Kohler 11. November 2022 Reply

Thanks for this inside. Very enlightening!

Marcus Raitner 11. November 2022 Reply

Thanks a lot, Silke.

paola 17. November 2022 Reply

Thanks!Great arti­cle

Marcus Raitner 22. November 2022 Reply

Thanks, Pao­la!

Leave a Reply