Have you ever wondered how agile methodologies can be scaled up as a business grows? The Spotify agile model is an example of a successful transition. This model has allowed Spotify to reach new heights without losing the benefits of agile, which is often reserved for smaller teams and small businesses.
Keep reading to learn more about the Spotify model, how it works and what its advantages are. You’ll also discover some of the best tools to leverage the power of agile management in your organization along the way!
What is the Spotify Agile Model?
In the beginning, as a typical start-up, Spotify was an avid user of the scrum methodology to manage its innovative projects. Once business took off and legions of new hires started flooding the office, the company had to get creative in order to accommodate this new scale without losing its agile culture.
Their solution, called the Spotify model, focuses on team autonomy and relies on people to reach objectives and complete goals. This approach is highly tailored to their specific corporate culture and forms a network of interconnected individuals to encourage the free flow of ideas and autonomous decisions.
Its success has led agile experts to explore this agile method, and it was documented extensively by Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson.
How does the Spotify model work?
This is the burning question: how does it all work? This agile model is meant to be both simple and playful while allowing for complex interactions between colleagues. Rather than just another agile framework, the Spotify agile model is an organizational structure based around different groups discussed below.
Squads are the most basic unit of the Spotify model. They can be compared to the agile team in other agile models, as they are autonomous teams composed of 6 to 12 people working together on a specific feature area.
Each of these cross-functional team is assigned:
- A mission, to guide their action and build their roadmap,
- A Product Owner (PO), who communicates the project vision to the team and assigns priorities,
- An agile coach, who provides support and guidance to the team to help improve their workflow and explain agile principles.
For more efficiency, their work is as self-contained as possible, in order for progress not to be hindered by tasks external to the squad. Moreover, the tribe is kept in close contact with all relevant stakeholders to facilitate communication.
Squads are self-managed. As such, they are free to choose between any agile frameworks (Kanban, sprints, MVP…) as they see fit. Similarly, scrum ceremonies are entirely optional. Giving teams this kind of flexibility requires agile tools.
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Tribes are made up of multiple squads working together on related missions and features. Thus, they are larger groups that can comprise up to 150 members. They still retain a certain degree of autonomy but are placed under the authority of one or more tribe leads.
Tribe leads can also be part of one of the squads present within the tribe. They are responsible for fostering teamwork and collaboration within the tribe and across the squads. One of the main aspects of their work consists in identifying and removing cross-tribe dependencies to make the development process smoother and more efficient.
Squads from the same tribe work closely together, often in the same office. They also hold regular meetings to exchange ideas and review their work.
A trio refers to the tribe lead, the product lead and the design lead.
Each tribe needs to be guided by a trio in order to keep the three approaches in mind.
As the company grows, it may become necessary to think of ways to handle missions that would require the close collaboration of multiple tribes. Alliances refer to two or more (usually three) trios working together to align their respective tribes towards a common goal.
Chapters are horizontal structures designed to regroup the specialists of a specific tool or area (a specific programming language for example) within a tribe.
They act as backbones holding the squads together: they ensure best practices are established and followed by everyone working on a specific feature across the entire tribe. These standards make for faster development cycles and easier interoperability.
Each chapter is headed by a chapter lead, who is usually a senior developer. The latter guides the other members of the chapter and helps them grow their skills to become even better specialists.
Guilds are also transversal groups, but their scope is larger than chapters, as they may include people from different tribes, meaning its members can work across the entire organization.
Chapters and guilds are largely related but operate at a different scale. They both function like communities designed to improve communication on topics of interest. Oftentimes, guilds include people from related chapters across multiple tribes (such as all the web developers, all the testers…).
The purpose of guilds is to facilitate the exchange of solutions. A problem encountered by developers could already have been solved by a colleague from a different tribe: guilds allow this knowledge to be shared instead of wasting time.
Guild members convene during workshops or hackathons, during which everyone gets an opportunity to further their knowledge. It’s important to note that guilds are open to anyone, unlike chapters which are reserved for specialists. This openness also encourages self-development and learning.
System Owners are responsible for keeping systems sane. As squads might need to make changes across different systems, their overall coherence may degrade if no one works behind the scenes to keep them up and running.
System Owners are squad members or chapter leaders who dedicate part of their time to updating and fixing a system. For more complex systems, they might work in a Dev-Ops pair.
The chief architect holds a key role: they oversee the done across multiple systems to guide squads and tribes during the development process. Though they provide advice as to what would be best from an architectural design perspective, the squad is still given the final say.
Why adopt the Spotify model
The Spotify agile model has several advantages.
Boosting autonomy and productivity
Its emphasis on self-management means that squad members are encouraged to trust each other and rely on organic interaction rather than contrived ceremonies or processes to get things done.
The squad is responsible for their own decisions and can choose to work as they see fit, meaning that everyone is on board with the methodology chosen. Since squads are largely independent, they can achieve faster release times.
Fostering collaboration and teamwork
The matrix formed by the model can be seen as an interpersonal network designed to allow everyone to communicate across silos and departments. Giving ideas the room to breathe and circulate is a means of solving problems and sharing best practices.
Spotify also allows its employees to dedicate 10% of their time to a personal project, called hacking time. Innovative ideas or solutions can emerge from this free time. No managers and informal communication, as well as relatively safe, incremental releases made possible by the autonomy of each squad mean there is no harm in trying new things. Failure is seen as part of the continual improvement process.
The success of Spotify is due in part to the ingenuity of this agile method, which has allowed the company to grow from a small start-up to the global leader that it is today. It is one of the best examples of a successful implementation of agile, scaled to the size of a large business.
Despite all these benefits, the agile method used by Spotify also presents its own set of challenges.
It may not work for you!
Though this method works at Spotify, it may not be suited to your organization. Managers should always take their environment into account to devise strategies and management practices.
The culture of your company is unique, and this means change and new methods will be transformed and applied differently within your company. If it goes against the DNA of your firm, it may even backfire!
This is why copy & paste won’t work here. Be sure to adapt and cherry-pick any good ideas you’ve heard from others.
Don’t be misled by its name
The Spotify agile model isn’t really a comprehensive model, nor was it ever intended to be. It is but a snapshot of the way most engineering teams organized themselves in 2012 when the model was discussed.
It is a far cry from more rigid, structured, and stringent agile frameworks such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), which offers a set of certifications and training.
The Spotify approach is best described as a way to allow autonomous people to work with more flexibility. It promotes values such as learning from failures, communicating across the organization and trusting others, rather than methods or tools, which are ultimately chosen by the squads themselves.
Harness the power of agile methodologies
As we’ve seen, it’s not always easy to scale agile methods. The Spotify agile model provides a well-documented case of a successful implementation. But the lessons shouldn’t be about the model itself: the key takeaway here is to learn from good ideas and find what works best for your own company.
Regardless of whether you decide to implement concepts from the Spotify agile model in your own company, making it more agile requires… agile tools. These can fuel your reflection and help your strategy by providing your team with more autonomy and flexibility.