Many companies find it hard to scale Agile due to the various complexities that come with multiple teams, locations, time zones and different cultures. Over the past decade, many Scaling frameworks like SAFe, LESS, DAD have been introduced into the Agile world by various Agile practitioners and groups. This article is about one such scaling model called the “Spotify Model”.
“Spotify” is a Sweden based music streaming company founded in 2006. The structure used by the company to scale agile across its various teams located in different locations came to be called as the Spotify Model. This model is becoming increasingly popular due to its flexibility and simplicity.
Today’s world is constantly changing due to social, political, and economic disruptions. The 2019-2020 COVID is a classic example of disruption in the entire world to the “business as usual”.
To keep up with the disruption and competition, companies must be nimble and innovative to respond quickly and stay ahead of their peers. The hierarchical structures and organizational processes that worked well for decades are no longer enough to keep up with this fast-paced world.
While traditional hierarchies and managerial processes are still very much required to run the show, the need of the hour is to also have an additional network structure operating in tandem with the traditional norms. The purpose of this network is to continually assess the business, the industry, and the organization, and react with greater agility, speed, and creativity than what has existed before.
There are so many examples around us where Start-up organizations thrive in the network structure and fail miserably when they have to scale, and cannot continue with traditional hierarchy and processes. In equal measure, around us are examples of Enterprise giants collapsing under the weight of the traditional hierarchy alone without the nimbleness and speed of the network structure. Both the operating structures – the hierarchy and the network, are essential for today’s businesses to thrive.
Kotter’s theory of establishing a dual operating system within an organization resonates heavily in the Spotify Model and compels us to draw parallels. In the Model we can see that there are innovative and thriving network structures and at the same time there is space to establish the traditional hierarchy as well.
Squad: The Squad is the basic entity of the model which comprises the team that does the work. The Squad does not have a dedicated Squad lead but has a dedicated Product Owner.
The Product Owner tells the Squad “What” has to be done , prioritizes the work and maintains the backlog.
Each Squad is self-organizing and can choose to follow Scrum, Kanban, XP or a hybrid of these. Squads are aligned to their mission, product strategy and short-term goals. Each Squad owns the release and delivery end to end. Typically, an infrastructure / DevOps Squad enables them to carry out smooth releases but does not do it for them.
The Squad has access to an Agile Coach who runs retrospectives and Sprint Planning meetings. The coaches help the Squads to continuously improve.
Tribe: A Tribe is a group of Squads that are related to each other by nature of the work being done by them. for e.g multiple Squads working together on the same product feature or closely related product features/ same product within a portfolio of different products.
The number of people in a Tribe is recommended to be 100 in line with the Dunbar number. As per the Dunbar number, most people cannot maintain a social relationship with more than 150 people or so. All the Squads within a Tribe are co-located and physically able to interact in common areas dedicated for this purpose.
There is a Tribe Lead who is responsible for creating a productive and an innovative environment for the Squads. The Tribe Lead can be part of a Squad as well.
Tribes meet often to showcase what they have been working on, what has been delivered and their learnings. The showcase could include the working software, new tools and techniques.
One of the foremost challenges to resolve in a scaled agile environment are “conflicts and dependencies”. These can crop up during the development of a product among the Squads within a Tribe and also exist among Squads in other Tribes as well.
Dependencies could slow down or block the progress. Such dependencies are identified and are handled by reprioritization or through technical solutions. Sometimes innovative ideas could help remove the dependencies.
The end goal is to avoid dependencies between Tribes by making the Tribes self-organizing; and once that is achieved by having minimal dependencies among Squads within a Tribe.
A survey is done for all Squads at the end of every Quarter to understand the pain points and areas for improvement.
For e.g multiple Squads having issues with the release process need urgent attention. One of the Squads not getting enough support from their Product Owner needs leadership intervention.
Chapter: Certain disciplines/technological areas within the Tribe, like QA, Database Specialists, Front-end developers, Back-end developers, UX Specialists will benefit with regular discussions and interactions. People within these functions across multiple Squads and within the same Tribe constitute the Chapter.
Constant communication within the Chapter members is encouraged. Each Chapter meets regularly to discuss their achievements and challenges in their respective areas of expertise e.g QA Chapter, UX Chapter, DB Chapter.
There is a Chapter Lead who can guide the various members of the Chapter on “How” things can best be done. For e.g the QA Chapter lead can strategize the End-to-End Functional, Performance and Security Testing to be carried out for the new version of the product in an upcoming release. This will ensure the testers within all the Squads have a common well thrashed out testing strategy for the upcoming product release.
The Chapter lead can also be the line manager of the members in his Chapter, performing the traditional managerial responsibilities like people development, performance appraisals, career growth etc. The Chapter lead is also a member of one of the Squads in the Tribe, making him remain closer to ground realities.x`
All the Chapter leads within a Tribe typically could report to the Tribe lead, and the Tribe Lead performs all the managerial responsibilities for the Chapter Leads within his Tribe as well as the next level Squad members of his Tribe.
Guild : A Guild is like a “community of interest” cutting across Tribes throughout the Organization/ Business Unit.
Imagine an Enterprise that has three Tribes each located in three different locations. There could be QA Chapters for each Tribe with respect to the location. There is also a need for QA members of one Tribe to exchange and share processes and learnings with QA members of the other two Tribes. The Guild is an organic structure that serves this purpose.
The Guild cuts across the Tribes spread across the organization across locations. Knowledge, tools, and practices are shared. For e.g the QA Guild includes all the QA Chapter members and in addition can include other members who are interested.
Guilds usually are not focussed on a specific release or delivery but on their area of expertise in a generic way. They have mailing lists, publish newsletters and conduct unconferences once in a while.
Many of the foundational elements within the model become the backbone to scale agile in the organization adopting it.
While SAFe is a heavyweight scaled agile framework having many different flavours like Essential SAFe, Portfolio SAFe, etc, Spotify is more of a lightweight framework.
It might work very well for start-ups that are growing into medium Enterprises or for larger enterprises that are not ready yet for something as heavy as SAFe.
The role of the Scrum Master is absent in Spotify, but the Squads have access to Servant Leaders in the form of Chapter and Tribe Leads and Agile Coaches.
The Spotify Model has been a popular buzzword due to its unique nomenclature, flexibility and simplicity. It recommends the need for a community-based networking structure within the organization and focuses on the Agile Principles rather than Practices. It is a very unique and liberating Scaled Agile model and requires the practitioners to be extremely mindful and responsible while adopting it, so that it can be tailored for their specific organizational needs.
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