I discovered Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom a couple years ago, via the Philosophize This! podcast. In this work, Fromm dissects the human psyche’s intricate dance with freedom and authority. His thesis pivots around a paradoxical tendency in human behaviour: the flight from the liberating yet daunting responsibility that freedom entails, seeking refuge in authoritarian structures.
While Fromm was reacting to the rise of fascism in Europe at the height of World War II, having fled Nazi Germany himself, it occurs to me that some of his observations are relevant to a matter more mundane: the resistance we often encounter to fully embracing Agile principles.
Fromm posits that individuals often gravitate towards authoritarianism to escape the burdens of freedom—making choices, and shouldering responsibility for those choices. Agile, with its ethos of flexibility, adaptive planning, and shared responsibilities, deviates sharply from the more rigid, hierarchical structures of traditional models. The psychological unease may make the predictability and defined roles of those conventional frameworks seem attractive, even as they consistently produce worse outcomes.
Agile’s emphasis on teamwork and collective decision-making stands in contrast to the more authoritarian, top-down approach of traditional models. Fromm’s analysis of authoritarianism highlights a discomfort with autonomy and shared responsibility, seen in the resistance to Agile. While Agile empowers teams, it also demands a higher degree of participation and decision-making, which can be overwhelming for individuals used to clear, directive leadership.
Fromm also touches on the need for psychological security, often threatened by uncertainty. Agile, inherently flexible and responsive to change, may appear less predictable and secure than traditional models. This perceived instability can be unsettling, particularly for those who prioritize stability and certainty in their work environment. Agile’s iterative process, with its constant feedback and adjustments, stands in stark contrast to the “set and forget” approach of more traditional methodologies. Letting go of the authority of certainty—again, even in the face of inferior results—may be difficult even for otherwise rational people.
While Fromm wrote his book before either Ken Schwaber or Jeff Sutherland were born, and a full 12 years before the word “software” was even coined, its exploration of psychology—particularly, our responses to freedom, responsibility, and change—offers profound insight into why people resist Agile. This resistance can be viewed as a manifestation of broader human tendencies, a reflection of our complex relationship with freedom and authority. Reciprocally, embracing Agile may well inform our larger inherent quest for balance between freedom and structure, change and stability, and autonomy and guidance.