5 Ways to Scale Agile à la Spotify

Spotify is a Swedish music streaming company which is an apogee of software product development using Agile.

Spotify has imbibed agile values & principles to drive outstanding innovation, market leading products, engaged customers and happy, high performing teams.

I have been personally inspired by the ‘way of working’ at Spotify which I use to a large extent in my consulting assignments with several clients. Thought of sharing key take ways in this blog.

Here we go..

Structure

Conway’s Law states, “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of their communication structures”.

Keeping this in mind, Spotify engineers align themselves in overlapping communities focused on team goals (squads), domain objectives (tribes), common skills (chapters), and similar interests (guilds), so they can freely experiment with tools and processes. Objective of the above org design is to have a minimum viable bureaucracy and balance high autonomy with high alignment.

Careful attention to team structure is of paramount importance as it can help accelerate product delivery by minimizing the dependencies across teams. Another important thing to keep in mind is to have the right people for the right roles. Product Owner and Agile Coach/Leader/Scrum Master are two very important roles having different responsibilities and skill requirements. One needs to selecting in having ‘horses for courses’ which can have a huge bearing on your success. Squads and Tribes focus on the ‘what’ aspects of the product whereas Chapter and Guilds helps team members hone the ‘how’ aspects of their skills via ‘Communities of Practices’. CoP play a pivotal role in cultivating a sharing & learning culture across the organization.

Process

Agile is a mindset which is defined by four values, described by twelve principles and manifested through an unlimited number of practices. Practices are not important, values & principles are. Route to ‘Being Agile’ journey can be taken by any or a mix of process frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, XP, DevOps, SAFe, LeSS etc. Velocity, Predictability are vanity metrics whereas Cycle Time, Value Delivery, Customer & Team NPS are Agile Metrics that matter. More often that not, agile teams get embroiled in a rut to do things in the right way which results in a good ‘output’ but may not necessarily lead to the right business ‘outcomes’.

Engineering

Spotify’s infrastructure squads enables developer self service capabilities e.g reusable IaaC scripts, docker images, CI/CD scripts which a devops cross skill team member in a feature squad can use on its own. This reduces dependencies on Infrastructure teams leading to true ‘devops’ capabilities in the organization. Micro services along with loosely coupled application architecture results in smaller releases which can be readily deployed using blue-green deployments, canary deployments and tested effectively with A/B tests.

Spotify has also implemented an open source model in their code base where updates can be done by any squad. Let’s say — squad 1, implementing Feature A need to make a change in Feature B owned by squad 2, can make those changes without an explicit dependency on squad 2. Dependency management is one of the top impediments when you scale agile and an open source model really helps alleviate this issue. Of course, necessary checks and balances in terms of code and architecture reviews should be in place to ensure things are not broken.

Culture

Culture is the most important and the most difficult aspect to change, yet it is shoehorned into a corner. Leaders focus on the ‘why’ and ‘what’ aspects and let the teams figure out the ‘how’ and ‘when’ aspects of product discovery and delivery. Leaders make safety as a pre-requisite where the teams experiment and learn rapidly without fear. Giving importance to team NPS as much as customer NPS is another facet of their culture. Products driven by customer demand, supported by a flat hierarchy which values rapid launch & learn are key aspects of their culture. Dan Pink describes how intrinsic motivation arises at the intersection of purpose, autonomy and mastery, where performance is increased and value is created. Leaders should be the key enablers to drive this motivation.

Don’t Copy

As can be seen from Hofstede’s culture dimension model, individual wary in culture aspects from country to country. Spotify teams are primarily based out of Sweden. Therefore what works in Sweden, may or may not work in US, China, India or for that matter any geography. Do take into account the culture dimensions of the country where teams are based. Needless to say, Don’t copy their model but do copy their attitude!