Why Spotify’s agile patterns work and why you shouldn’t copy them

There is no Spotify agile model. But lots of people from Spotify keep talking about how their system of people and processes operates. It all sounds very good. It’s like showing people a chocolate cake, telling them how good it is to eat, and then saying “don’t eat chocolate cake”. It’s also lazy consulting. Spotify’s documentation on how it worked a decade ago seems like a perfect, sellable, turn-key solution you could sell to executives who want “agile in a box”.

There’s a very good reason why you should take Spotify’s advice not to copy them by jumping in and adopting anything they’ve done from squads to guilds. It’s all to do with Swedish culture.

Spotify was born in Sweden. Here are some things about Sweden from the psychological research about its culture compared to the USA. 

Comparison of Sweden and USA on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions

Sweden USA
Caring for others and quality of life are core values. Quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable. Driven by competition, achievement, and success. Success is defined by the phrase “winner takes all” – a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organisational life.
No preference for maintaining time-honoured traditions and norms or viewing societal Measure performance on a short-term basis, with profit and loss statements being issued on a quarterly basis. This also drives individuals to strive for quick results within the work place.
People believe there should be no more rules than are necessary and if they are ambiguous or do not work they should be abandoned or changed. Schedules are flexible, hard work is undertaken when necessary but not for its own sake, and innovation is not seen as threatening. People are not shy about approaching their prospective counterparts in order to obtain or seek information. Teams are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative. Also, within the exchange-based world of work we see that hiring, promotion and decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.

Overall, cultures like Sweden have “a cultural emphasis on Individualism and Being Orientation, and a relative cultural de-emphasis on Power Distance. This value profile typifies democratic welfare states, where concern for the environment is high.”
In this light, Spotify’s team models make a lot of sense. Tribes, Squads, Chapters and Guilds are all designed to generate a shared interest and look after people’s well-being, their need to be autonomous and have fulfillment, mastery and purpose. In Sweden, like other Western European regions like the Netherlands and Scandinavia, “people’s work motivation is very much connected to a feeling of autonomy inside their own world field” (Wursten, 2008). These factors are a big social equaliser and help to minimise the negative effects of hero culture. 

Spotify: the model you’re having when you’re not having a model

In a recent interview with Spotify, Edgar Schein reinforces the importance in Spotify of understanding culture:

“Culture is also an abstraction, yet the forces that are created in social and organisational situations deriving from culture are powerful. If we don’t understand the operation of these forces, we can become victim to them.”

Disregarding culture, and assuming that certain work models from one country is just plug-and-play in a different country, therefore, is a poor strategy:

  • Starbucks failed in Australia because it didn’t consider Australia’s existing coffee culture
  • Home Depot failed in China because people didn’t consider that the Chinese don’t like to “do it themselves”
  • Walmart didn’t consider that in Germany “greeters”, and their propensity to bag customers groceries for them, would be strange practices

Spotify’s models work because they align to the companies core values and the organisation’s culture. Working out and profiling your own organisation’s culture is therefore key to understanding how to affect change.
Waisfisz’ work in organisational culture is key reading for me when I go into a new agile transformation engagement. His papers are a great reminder about where to first focus on change. 

Source: Bob Waisfisz (2015) An organisational cultural perspective. The Hofstede Centre. Itim International

Combined with Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, I’ve always have a good place to start understanding the culture I’m seeking to change. This material always helps me to understand:

  • What approaches to agile transformation will tend to work better than others — top-down and all in, start small and public, or even Scrum by stealth?
  • How to sell change — is it for the “greater good”, long term profitability, or is this about market dominance and do I need a burning platform to create any momentum?
  • What agile frameworks will work over others — will Lean and its iterative change be more palatable than the radical change that Scrum often brings? Because a culture is high on uncertainty avoidance, or has a high power distance, is a scaled agile framework like SAFe (where people can see a familiar hierarchy) a better place to start than LeSS?

In the agile community, we tend now to easily recognise what a traditional, Waterfall culture looks like. It’s now time to broaden our reach and understand the underlying cultural aspects of an organisation, what drives it, what motivates it, and then use this as a tool to drive positive change.

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