Don’t be a slave to the model

I was recently involved in a conversation with some colleagues, in which one of them was seeking to introduce to their own organisation “the Spotify model” [pdf] of organising teams. This a model that tackles the twin problems of teams needing to be cross-functional and to scale up the number of people.

I’m always wary when organisations look to implement models like this—and my wariness increases with the detail and complexity of the model in question. I’m less worried when the model in question is something lightweight, such as a scrum of scrums, and most cautious when it’s something very complex, such as SAFe. “The Spotify model” is somewhere in between, but it requires profound changes to people’s working practices, processes and daily relationships, so problems will have a much greater impact.

On the positive side, it does open up some interesting ideas about organising and managing teams when there are cross-cutting concerns. It’s definitely worth knowing about and understanding if one is thinking about evolving one’s org structure due to some unmet need.

On the more sceptical side it’s a very specific model that worked for one particular organisation at a particular point in its lifespan. The paper linked to above even says, “By the time you read this, things have already changed.” I would like to think that most experienced managers would reject the idea that applying a verbatim copy of that model in their organisation is a great idea—it’s just too specific to its original time and place. The chances of those same exact solutions being right, too, for one’s current organisation at this current time are vanishingly small. Context is critical.

So while I would hope experienced managers will understand the nuances of applying ideas from elsewhere, I would even caution against talking about these kinds models as if they were somehow fixed and worthwhile goals in their own right. That’s because those with less experience, or less imagination, may misunderstand this and imagine that it is some kind of panacea.

It benefits all of us to be honest about the imperfections and context-specific nature of the solutions and models we are interested in. That will help us adapt them intelligently, collaboratively, and manage expectations accordingly. This in turn increases our chances of successful change.

Photo by Kajsa Wikman