Sunday, February 18, 2018

Thought Reform and Mind Control in the Agile Community

How do we know we're making progress towards a meaningful goal? Are we following a carrot on a stick - or even worse: are we being led astray in our attempts to become more agile?
Has the agile community gone too far in their attempts of making agility a lifestyle?

I feel the need to write this post because I recognized some patterns in the agile community which I know all too well from the years of my life I spent studying and discerning the phenomena of psychological abuse. 

But let me start from the beginning.


This article isn't singling out anyone or pointing fingers.
It's not about calling, labelling or stigmatizing anyone.

 Instead, it is an invitation for each of us to think where we ourselves are heading with "Agile".
Are we shaping an aspirable future with our words and actions?

If you feel that this article is talking about you or anyone you know, ask yourself: "Why?"
Why are we seeing those behaviours in the agile community?

Dangerous Behaviour

In this section, I will examine a list of behaviours based on the four common domains of "Mind Control" - neither with a claim that some specific persons would do all of these nor with a claim that some of the can't also be found elsewhere, just with a note that these behaviours raise a red flag. For brevity's sake, I am going to limit this to central points that are most notable.

I. Mind Control

Behaviour Control

a) Major commitment

of time and/or money for indoctrination purposes.This is talking about stuff like requiring attendance at group events and the trainings required to climb up the pre-defined hierarchy.

b) Group Think

instead of individual expression of thought. Society grows by bringing completely new ideas to the marketplace of ideas, then examining these based on their merit, instead of their point of origin. Group think means that ideas contradicting the group's doctrine will be rejected even if they are true and useful.

c) Obedience and Punishment

to enforce compliance. Obedience to the group's rules is paramount to keep order, even if said order is detrimential to growth and learning. Punishment and the threat thereof is used to keep members obedient.

Information Control

a) Deception

taking many forms, from outright lying over hiding facts all the way to distorting unpleasantries in order to make them acceptable. It's pretty much the opposite of transparency.

b) Discourage dialogue

with people who are critical towards the organization and its goals, including outsiders, ex-members and dissenting current members.

c) Compartmentalization

of sources. Information provided by "members in good standing" is good, information provided by "others" is bad, especially when in conflict with the organization's goals.

Thought Control

a) Axiomatic Truth

of any statement proclaimed by the group. There must be no doubt that the official doctrine is true by definition.

a) Black vs. White

thinking. There is no ambiguity and no alternatives. If it isn't A, it is B. This provides the basis for simple explanations to life's complex problems.

c) Us vs. them

mentality: There is no sane reason not to be on "our" side: Everyone else isn't enlightened enough or has a problem.

d) Loaded Language

reducing complex topics to contrite buzzwords. This inhibits, rather than growing, a deeper understanding.

e) Forced positivism

where people may be branded or shunned for "negative thinking".

f) Thought stopping

techniques are applied to suppress the need for analysis, critical thinking or constructive criticism of the group's doctrine.

Emotional Control

a) Manipulating feelings

of people for or against people or ideas by using psychological or linguistic triggers.

b) Blame shifting

towards those expressing ideas inconsistent with the group. Nothing can ever be the group's fault, it must be those who see the problem. Also manifests as: "Shooting the messenger".

c) Use of fear

tactics to keep people silent and in line. This is also combines with:

d) Phobia induction

in current members. Something bad will happen if you follow other ideas, or, God forbid, decide to leave the group. And remember: there are no legitimate reasons to quit - ever!

II. Apologetics

Apologetics is a huge chapter in and of itself. Talented apologists have a massive arsenal at their disposal, with the main goal of silencing dissent. Apologists tactics range anywhere from "working the issue" towards character assassination. Again, for brevity's sake, I will reduce this to an examination to the three core tactics employed by apologists.

Logical fallacy

The largest category of weapons in the apologist's arsenal is the employment of logical fallacies. There are too many to discuss - it's really worth exploring this domain of philosophy to be less prone to manipulation, so we will limit this to the most notable ones.

a) "Misunderstood"

When caught on a contradiction, the first line of defense will be "Ah, you misunderstood". Can be well combined with Loaded Terminology ("join us to lean what we mean") and blame shifting ("YOU get it wrong!") Note that the apologist will do their best to avoid clarifying the real meaning, as this would put the burden of proof on them.

b) Moving the Goalpost

Another powerful bait is to move the topic away from items which can be scientifically examined and scrutinized by changing the meaning of things mid-discussion. Combines very well with Loaded Language ("It means something else") and axiomatic truth ("If it were wrong, we wouldn't say it").

c) Appeal to Authority

or to Popular Opinion. Instead of tangible evidence, names and titles ("Doctor X") or sweeping statements ("Everyone knows ...") are offered as "proof".

Making it personal

Instead of arguing or providing evidence about the matter, the person of the critic becomes the topic of discussion in an attempt to "shoot the messenger" to avoid that the message itself needs to be examined. This can range anywhere from:

a) Who are you?

It looks easy to discredit a person who doesn't have the combined experience of those one the other side of the argument by simply stating, "We have industry leaders, professors and scientists - and you are?" If this doesn't end the discussion, they will move on to:

b) Mud slinging

and shifting the dicussion towards personal shortcomings of the dissenter, either in tangible aspects ("You failed at ...") or even their presumed emotions ("Why do you have such anger/hate towards ...?")

c) Character assassination

Providing unsubstantiated reasons why listening to the person speaking the different idea is a bad idea, such as "The person is a fraud, a criminal, psychologically defective and you'll be damaged if you listen"

Shifting the burden of proof

What's more convenient than turning the entire discussion around - instead of "Why should I do X?", let the dissenter explain "Why do you not want to do it?", which allows the apologist to lean back while the critic has to waste time and energy, exposing their thinking and providing additional places of attack for the apologist.

Instead of digging deeper here, let me refer back to Hitchen's Razor: "That which is assumed without evidence may be dismissed without evidence." What this means: If someone claims that a certain thing works, you don't need to disprove that. They must prove that it does.

I also want to combine this with Sagan's Standard, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" - so the next time someone says that "this always works" or "it can be used in any context", remember: that's an extraordinary claim which still needs to be proven!

III. Change of character

Thought reform modifies people's character in ways that are detrimental to society as a whole. In order to avoid getting too personal to anyone, I will keep this section at short, commented headlines.

Situational ethics

Things which a normal person wouldn't do in normal circumstances are okay when it's required to protect the group's special interests or to further the group's declared mission. For example, being deceptive, outright lying or saying bad things about outsiders.

Need for conversion

Once you believe your group has "The Truth", you want to do everyone a favour by converting them to your group. Rejection isn't taken lightly, as this attacks the very thing you believe in. "They" must be evil if "they" don't take your gracious offer.

Following leaders

The group's charismatic leader(s) offer "The Truth", so what comes out of their mouth must be good. Critical thinking is shut down when words are spoken by a leader. Members of thought reform movements just can't understand why other people wouldn't have the same level of veneration for their leader as they do.


You don't have time to waste on things such as thinking or interacting with outsiders, as you need to do things which further the agenda of your group. After all, you have an important mission - and it can only be achieved if you're fully dedicated.

Mental shutters

You are no longer open to ideas that conflict with the group's ideology. Instead, you invest time into ideas that are "in party line".

Limited social interaction

You reject people who propose ideas that don't fit with the group - and break "dangerous" relationships, warning others about such "poisonous/toxic" people as well.


You don't understand a joke at the expense of your "truth". NOBODY is allowed to joke about the truth, and you will make sure that those who dare do so get put into place.

Concluding words

Thank you for continuing to this point. It is sad to see that even in the agile community, we see many people who are affected by such symptoms without even realizing. It's even sadder to see when people entrench themselves further in such limiting beliefs and behaviours day by day. Such behaviour is often the consequence of having too much vested interest in this entire Agile/Scrum thing a bit too far or too seriously.

I would leave you with a few open questions, that you may reflect for both you and those around you:

  • Do you see positive growth in character caused by following an Agile career?
  • Is there a willingness to discuss the option that there might be the slightest chance that all of it could be wrong?
  • Are sound, factual reasons brought forth when contradicting ideas are raised?
  • Is there respect and positive openness even towards those who hold conflicting beliefs?
  • Are any detrimental behaviours developing, and what is being done about them? 


  1. Brilliantly written and quite extensive.These could be applicable to not just Agile but many other aspects of life as well

    1. Oh absolutely. The practices are applied by high-pressure groups all over the earth and predate the agile movement.

  2. I see many of these behaviors at my current organisation. It's a sad, but insightful, comment on the levels of professionalism, openness and cultural maturity. Hopefully this post will contribute to discussion and improvement. Thanks you.