Monday, May 04, 2020

It's Only a Model

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Recently, the following article has been making the rounds:

"Failed #SquadGoals Spotify doesn't use "the Spotify model," and neither should you."

The article claims, with backup from former employees, that the famous Spotify development model -- popularized by articles, videos, and books created largely by Henrick Kniberg -- was never very successful at Spotify, and organizations should ignore it.

If you are not familiar with the Spotify Model, Google it. It describes Spotify's culture and practices for scaling, team formation, engineering, Lean, Agile, etc. The articles describe overcoming the challenges of scaling engineering, understanding customer needs, dealing with stakeholders, etc. It was a beacon of light for any manager struggling in these areas...which means most of them.

The prestige of the Spotify model is undeniable. I've sat next to strangers on planes who gush about it. I've even had clients who insisted on cloning everything in the model, even naming their teams Squads as if the new naming convention would bestow higher productivity.

You can't blame Henrick Kniberg. Henrick is a master communicator. He's a very personable guy . His early book "Scrum from the Trenches" inspired many and I share clips of his videos and articles with clients.

But inspiration isn't the same as imitation.  Models, especially cultural models, can never be directly transplanted between organizations. All you end up with is a cargo cult of practices with no heart behind them. Cargo cults most famously existed after World War 2, when natives living near abandoned military airfields imitated the observed practices of the former airbase soldiers to entice the return of cargo planes that would bring them valuable things such as steel knives and candies. Unfortunately for them, imitating microphones and headsets with pineapples and coconuts did not work. Similarly, calling teams "Squads" and quoting articles without growing the heart of values and principles, which they are built upon, is equally futile.

Models are for Inspiration 

In 1968, Dee Hock helped form VISA International.  VISA International (later renamed Visa) was established as a decentralized organization and was soon dominating the credit card industry. In his book "One from Many: VISA and the Rise of Chaordic Organization," Hock describes a self-organized company with complete transparency and self-organization. The "Chaordic Model" was an inspiration for many.  Hock resigned in 1984, and Visa is no longer decentralized or a leader in the industry. It has reverted to a slow, hierarchical company that does not innovate very much.

Does this mean the Chaordic model was wrong? Does Spotify's current culture discredit the "Spotify model?"

Not at all. Organizations are ever-changing aggregations of individuals that evolve continuously. Culture is the collection of people and their interactions. Nothing more. Models are just for inspiration.

So, What Do We Do?

What many in the Agile consultant industry ignore is the first and most crucial Agile value:

"Individuals and interactions over processes and tools."  I often shorten this to "People over process".  As mentioned above, culture is the result of the people in the organization and their relationships with one another. Practices merely help guide and constrain some of those interactions, hopefully in a useful way, but often not.

Cultural growth requires clear and consistent leadership. It starts with a vision for the organization and a set of values and principles that guide it. The culture will evolve and grow around those. I've always liked the analogy of that leadership and culture is similar to a gardener and the garden.  A gardener cannot make a garden grow. It will grow on its own. The gardener can provide the conditions and remove the weeds and other threats to growth, but in the end, some plants grow best in the soil that exists.

Cultivating a productive and healthy culture takes work and skill. Many leaders don't know where to start (it's usually not on many MBA curriculums). It just seems easier to read a book or article and adopt the formula it's selling, but that never works. It takes engagement, constant course correction, and the willingness to hand over control with trust and to grow from failure.  Following a pattern sounds more comfortable, but we end up chattering into pineapple microphones hoping the World War 2 planes will once again land.