In this post, you will learn the how to replicated Spotify’s success. How to create a high performance organization by copying “The Spotify Approach”.
They actually mention the key pattern in the very famous video created by Henrik Kniberg. But everyone seems to fall into the usual traps and are unable to replicate Spotify.
The Trap: Copying Structures
Let’s start with the trap.
There is a lot of excitement and interest in Spotify as a case study for high performance with Agile. At trainings and at meetups all over the world, I ask about people’s efforts to replicate Spotify and there is an almost a universal response: that people are not successful. Here is what usually happens:
- People copy Spotify’s structures such as Squads, Guilds, & Chapters.
- It doesn’t deliver the expected benefits.
What’s going on?
Copying other people’s structures does not work.
It is a very good idea to learn from others. To get inspiration. To get ideas. But not to copy.
The “Spotify Approach”
If you listen carefully to the Spotify video, they explain clearly what they did to create success. What you can do to create success. Here is what to do:
Look at where you are and grow from there. Don’t try to copy anyone else.
The whole reason they created the names “Squads”, “Guilds”, and “Chapters” is so they could make up a solution that was right for them. So they wouldn’t fall into the trap of copying someone else’s solution. That’s a key pattern for success: Create a solution based on your situation.
Find your own path.
How to Replicate Spotify’s Success
OK. But how do we replicate Spotify’s Success?
When listening to the video, it is clear that they had an organizational culture that supports trust, innovation, autonomy, experimentation and little bureaucracy. And with these cultural elements in place, they could evolve a very powerful solution to unlock their potential. And keep evolving it. They continue on their path today. For example, they are baffled that anyone would copy the “Spotify Model” since they themselves don’t follow it.
Here is what you do:
Create an organizational culture that supports trust, innovation, autonomy, experimentation with little bureaucracy.
Or more realistically move your organizational culture in this direction. If you are normal, your culture will need a fair bit of work to approach Spotify’s.
That is how to replicate Spotify.
Emulate Spotify’s Culture, not it’s Structures.
Just to clarify, I am not literally suggesting copying Spotify’s Culture. What I advise is to look at their culture and other high performance organizations for inspiration. Then find your own path based on your organization’s history and current situation.
3 Key Take-Aways
Here are the three key take-aways from this post:
- Don’t fall into the trap of copying other people structures
- Find your own path; your own solutions.
- Use Spotify and other exemplary organizations to inspire your own organizational culture initiative.
Thank You: Henrik Kniberg& Spotify
First, a personal thank you to Henrik Kniberg for all the amazing work he has done in the community and how he has personally helped me through his writing, videos, talks and personal communication. In particular the video created on Spotify has inspired a lot of change worldwide.
Second, a big thank you to Spotify for publicly sharing about it’s Engineering Culture. They are a great case study for possible elements of high performance organizations.
Where to Learn More
Culture change isn’t easy and there is a lot to say on this. If you want to learn more here are some additional resources:
- Consciously Approaching Agile for Lasting High Performance
- How to Change Your Culture
- How To Be Successful with Agile in Any Culture
If you want the detailed “HowTo” on shifting your leadership and culture to high performance we suggest you consider our in-person or online training or advisory services.
7 Years ago I wrote two famous blog posts (and a book) – How to Make Your Culture Work and How to Make Your Culture Work with Agile, Kanban & Software Craftsmanship. In this blog post, you will learn my updated advice and practical experiences on exactly how to do this. The focus is on how to create the greatest success within a culture bubble while respecting the host organizational culture.
If you are interested in evolving your organizational culture, please read: How to Change Your Organizational Culture.
Culture is a Local Phenomenon
The first thing to understand is that in all organizations, culture is a local phenomenon. Some organizations have a more coherent culture while others are more diverse. Most organizations have diverse cultures or ways of working in different parts of the organization. A simple example to illustrate this is a Product Development department that has a culture focused around innovation and creating change while the Operations department has a culture focused around stability and limiting change. This typical tension birthed the field of DevOps. It’s important to realize the underlying problem is one of mismatched culture. It’s normal in organizations to have these differences and resolving them can only be undertaken through culture change. For now, let’s focus on how to work with culture gaps.
Culture Bubbles: How to Survive
The most common way that people actually succeed with Agile and other progressive approaches (Digital, Innovation, Lean, etc) in most organizations is to create culture bubbles. Most of the time this happens automatically without people even realizing it. It starts with a leader who creates a culture bubble by introduction a different way of working. What happens is that a new culture is introduced or evolves within this part of the organization. Inside the bubble there are new ways of working that are often quite different from the rest of the organization. This pattern applies at different levels of the organization: teams, groups, departments, etc.
Patterns for Unhealthy Culture Bubbles
A common pattern I have noticed is that we take actions that inadvertently reduce the health of a culture bubble. Here are the Common Traps to avoid:
- Refusing to follow processes or create artifacts needed by the rest of the organization.
- Failure to respect other groups and managers decision to work in their own way of working.
- Expecting, demanding or encouraging other parts of the organization to change.
Patterns for Healthy Culture Bubbles
Over time, I have collected a set of patterns that support a healthy sustainable Culture bubble. These are as follows:
- Create healthy relations with the rest of the organization. A sign that we are in a healthy place is that we act from this place: “We’re OK, You’re OK.” Another word to describe this is: respect.
- Build adapters around your bubble so you provide the artifacts that are needed to support the rest of the organization. The most common example from the Agile world is this: if they ask for a project plan, give them a project plan.
- Focus on growth within the bubble. Focus on developing people and their ability deliver on organizational results.
The real secret here is to focus only on what you control within your bubble. Yes, there will be constraints from outside that slow things down and limit success. And the reality is that you don’t have control over it.
A helpful metaphor is to think of all the non-value-added work for the rest of the organization as “taxes”. We all pay taxes. It’s just part of life. In organizations, we need to pay organizational taxes for the privilege of working in the organization.
How to Grow Culture Bubbles
Of course people are often very interested in changing things outside of their bubble. There are two common reasons for this. #1 They are so excited about their way of working, they want others to follow suit. #2 The culture of the rest of the organization is so different, that it is a burden to operate all the adapters.
Let’s look at what you have control over:
- Stuff outside the bubble: No.
- Stuff inside the bubble: Yes!
Focus on Creating a Thriving Bubble
The secret is to focus on being successful within your bubble. Build passion. Ship products. Delight customers. Be amazing.
This is 100% within your control.
Here’s what will happen over time:
- Other parts of the organization may want to emulate you. If they ask for help, then help them. This is Agile – it works on the basis of pull. Wait for people to come to you.
- The leader of the bubble will get promoted. And then the bubble can grow since this leader now has more influence.
This is a proven pattern. I have heard many examples from all over the world with exactly this happening. And graduates from my leadership training report success using these principles.
The key ingredient is that you need is patience. Evolving to a new way of working takes time. People can only change when they are ready, so it’s all about supporting them as they are ready.
Woody’s Trick to Go Faster
Woody Zuill – the thought leader introducing of Mob Programming and No Estimates – shared a trick to make the culture within the bubble spread faster: Help other people. Here is how it works. The usual thing we do is to focus on our own success even while others around us are having challenges. (That’s actually the default Scrum process.) Woody idea is this: “Hey, other people and departments are struggling. Why don’t we help them?” Instead of asking others to change their way of working, you just help them be successful. Well, guess what usually happen? The other groups notice that people are happy and engaged in the bubble. They become curious about what you are doing and how you are working. And then they want it too.
Summary for How to Make Your Culture Work
Let’s review the key messages here:
- Culture is a local phenomenon
- Grow local culture in a bubble
- Build adapters around the bubble to keep it healthy
- Pay organizational “taxes” with a sense of gratitude
- Focus on your own success
- Growth happens over time
You will learn How to Change Your Organizational Culture. Yes. How to Change Your Culture. It requires effort and focus. And it is possible. I have done it and leaders around the globe have applied this same information to change their culture. What follows below is an outline of the proven steps. I also include pointers to supporting resources.
1. Desire for Growth
The starting place for culture change is desire – a powerful urge to create change. Nothing less than this will result in success. So that is the starting place. Anyone interested in shifting culture needs to look inside to see what is driving them and make sure they have motivation to do the work needed. I used to subscribe to Kotter’s “Sense of Urgency” and even advocate this. I no longer do. It turns out that Urgency linked to fear and a lower level of psychological safety. This inhibits personal and organizational growth. For this key reason, “Desire” is a better choice.
Strong Desire for Growth is Essential
Organizations that have sustained organizational growth over decades see improving as part of everyday work. They invest in growth because it is important. It’s the right thing to do. Not because of urgency.
2. Understand Existing Culture
The next step is to understand your existing culture. But what is Culture? We can define it as “How we do things around here”. I have experimented with a lot of culture models and recommend the two that are proven in terms of simplicity and power. You can use them together to diagnose and your culture and orient for growth. The Sahota Culture Model provides a clear understanding of culture through identification of the interconnected elements that shape culture. It also highlights the need to focus not just on Structures but also on the Consciousness (or Mindset) of a system. We often fall into the trap of focusing on structures (especially process) rather than focus on the people and how they are working together. This model reminds us that it’s really about the consciousness (or mindset), the people, not about the structures or process. The other model that is very powerful is a modified version of the Laloux Culture Model. It may be used to assess where the organization is right now. It also has the tendency to help spark a desire for shifting to a higher performance way of working such as Green or Teal. One key reason to use this model is that it has heaps of case studies and research to support the claims of high performance. It also lines up with many other models and theories of culture and behaviour such as McGregor’s Theory X – Theory Y.
3. Create a Star on the Horizon
The next step is to look at case studies and examples of the kind of company that you want to become. There are lots of great resources such as the book “Reinventing Organizations” or Diverse Paths to High-Performance Organizational Culture. It is a good idea to use these for inspiration. The goal is to create a “Star on the Horizon” that is aligned with the desire for change. Don’t try and copy structures. Copying simply gives you the structures without the shift in culture.
Find Your Own Path.
The secret here is to find your own path. Selecting a path is primarily a function of two things: 1. The existing situation in your organization. We can only grow and evolve from the place we are at. 2. The shared desire of people to create a new future. The desire could just be top leadership, or they may co-create this with people throughout the organization.
4. Culture Grows Locally
A common misconception is that culture change is for the whole organization. It is important to understand that in most organizations culture varies by team, department, and location. It is as unique as each individual manager. So, keep in mind this key point:
Culture is a local phenomenon.
Since it is a local phenomenon, it means that it is possible to make changes locally within your part of the organization. The most common way for culture to grow is Culture Bubbles. Of course, when we do this, there will be culture gaps that create tension and challenges. The key idea for reducing the tension is to Build Culture Adapters. There will be different ways of working and different values inside the bubble and outside the bubble. The adapter idea is to reduce conflict with the rest of the organization by building adapters between the ways of working. It’s a key pattern for creating sustainable culture bubbles.
5. Leaders Go First
Culture is primarily a reflection of Leadership. What happens at the bottom of the organization is a fractal of what happens at the top of the organization. (Thanks to Glenda Eoyang for this wisdom). It is well known that the performance of a team is a direct reflection of their manager – this was proven through validated real-world research almost 20 years ago through the Gallup 12 “Engagement” Questions.
Culture Change is Not Delegable
The way to change culture is for leaders to change how they interact with people and the organizational system. A key concept here is that Organizational Behaviour Follows Leadership Behaviour. A new kind of organizational behaviour way of working requires that leaders behave in a new way of working. So successful transformation requires that Leaders Go First!
6. Leadership Growth is Required
A key lesson in my career is that the Leader is the Limit for Growth. I notice that to create high performance organizational systems, leaders needed to develop themselves as human beings. They needed to grow into the kind of leaders we see in high performance environments. This means inner work cultivating trust, safety, and connection. As leaders we need to get our egos under control so we can develop leaders around us. This is not for the faint of heart. We are talking about developing ourselves not just as leaders but as human beings. Like you, I am on this journey too. I created the 4A’s Conscious Leadership Model to capture the step-by-step approach I have been using to grow myself. It’s a powerful tool to help rewire our unconscious behaviours that are preventing us from showing up as the leader we desire to be. We are so deeply conditioned by society to have behaviours that are contradictory to high performance. Dedicated focus and effort is required to shift our habits and unconscious behaviours.
A learning organization is a place where everyone grows.
Remember the desire for organizational growth in step 1? This is where you need it. Personal growth requires a strong drive to keep up the effort. This is the secret of changing culture: All we need to do is change our behaviour and culture will follow.
It’s a Journey
The above steps are sufficient and necessary for culture change in an organization. What is shared here is the key starting elements for culture change. Or course there are a lot more details on how to do the steps outlined here and even more on supporting the journey.
You Can Do This Regardless of Your Role
Execs, managers and coaches that I have trained have successfully applied what I am sharing here. We are all leaders. We may be a leader because people report to us or we have more seniority or expertise. And we can also be a leader because of how we choose to show up.
You Can Implement This Immediately
Regardless of your role you can chose to show up NOW the way a leader of the future organization would. You have full control over your behaviour.
You don’t need permission, budget or authority.
You don’t need permission, budget or authority to start acting in ways that model high performance behaviour. All of us can shift our local culture immediately. The only limit here is your desire and your investment in developing yourself. It’s a big shift for us as leaders. Sure, we still need to support the development of people around us so that we have leaders at all levels. But this is secondary to growing ourselves to fully model the kind of organizational leader needed for the future organizational culture/organization we wish to create.
So, here are the six key steps to change your culture:
- Desire for Growth
- Understand Existing Culture
- Create a Star on the Horizon
- Grow Culture Locally
- Leaders Go First
- Leadership Growth is Required
And here are the important tips to keep in mind:
- It’s a Journey
- You Can Do This Regardless of Your Role
- You Can Implement this Immediately
- You do not need permission, budget or authority
2020 Update: It’s A Journey
It’s been two years now since I wrote the original post. I have come to realize that although the “laws of organizational dynamics” seem obvious to me, it takes time for leaders to adapt to seeing reality as it actually is. One key reason is that it can be difficult for any of us to accept the full responsibility for our role and how we are contributing to the problems we face. Another is that the existing structures and reinforcement mechanism keep people bound in the existing world view. As such a broad or at the very least localized and intense desire to change is needed to overcome the challenges faced.
We have heard from organizations that culture is hard to define and harder to change. It requires changing behaviour. How a leader shows up, how they react during a crisis and what goes on behind closed doors is what creates culture. Culture is defined by behaviour and leaders shape the collective behaviours of an organization.
One of the reasons we moved from Agilitrix to SHIFT314 is to put our work with shifting mindset or consciousness on equal footing with our organizational change work. It’s simply not possible to shift culture without developing people in deep and profound ways.