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.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.


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