Thoughts on emulating Spotify’s matrix organization in other companies

I was in San Francisco in December for a conference. While I was there, I ended up connecting with a couple different companies who have been inspired by Henrik Kniberg’s whitepaper on Scaling Agile at Spotify, and who have been trying to implement some of those ideas in their own companies.

I think Henrik’s paper does an excellent job on describing the what and how, but it seems that the “why”, and some of the critical ideas can get lost when others read it.

If you haven’t read Henrik’s white paper, I’d suggest that you read that before reading the rest of the blog post. I will do a quick recap here though.

Spotify’s engineering and product organization (now over 600 people) is split into several large groups called Tribes. Each Tribe is responsible for a set of related features or engineering functions. For example, our largest tribe is the Infrastructure and Operations Tribe, whose name is pretty self-explanatory. I am the Tribe Lead of the Music Player Tribe. We handle importing audio from our label and distribution partners, storing and streaming the music, search, collection and playlists, artist pages, music metadata and the music knowledge graph that supports things like the above, but also ads, discover, radio and the like.

While the whole company works on the same product, Spotify, each tribe is set up so that it can work as independently as possible. As you will see below, a critical aspect of our organizational model is to give autonomy at every level. This helps remove decision-making bottlenecks and unnecessary dependencies, which improves velocity.

Each tribe is composed of squads. A squad is a team that is responsible for a single feature or component. For example, there is a squad that is responsible for search, a squad responsible for the AB test infrastructure, etc. As each tribe is set up to be as autonomous as possible, each squad is also set up to be autonomous. In the context of a feature development team, this means that each team is a full-stack team. A full-stack team is responsible for both backend implementation as well as the user interface implementation, on all platforms.

A typical feature squad would have web service engineers, iOS, Android, web and desktop engineers as well as testers, an agile coach, a product owner and UX designer. With this staffing, the squad has everything they need to implement anything related to their feature. They don’t have to wait on another team to implement the pieces they need. They also have autonomy and local decision-making ability, so there are few impediments on their speed of execution.

To this point with Tribes and Squads described only, Spotify may seem like a traditional, hierarchical engineering organization, but this is where the similarity ends. Unlike a traditional organization, a squad does not have a single engineering leader whom everyone on the team reports to. In fact there is not a single leader for the squad. The Product Owner and UX Designer work with the engineers and testers collectively to make decisions about their features.

Spotify is not a “no manager” culture though. We feel strongly that managers have a role in supporting the people who work for them. Managers have an important role to play as technical and career mentors and organizational communication conduits. Rather than have management hierarchies follow organizational ones (creating a de facto command-and-control structure), we instead have first level managers responsible for technical functional areas across multiple squads.

We call these reporting and functional groupings “chapters.” Again, as an example, reporting to me, the tribe lead, are Chapter Leads. In my tribe, there are currently three backend (services) development chapters, two front-end development chapters (including all the UI developers), a core library chapter, and a test chapter.  These seven Chapters span eight different squads. Almost every chapter lead has reports in 2 squads, and a few of them have reports in three squads. Almost all chapter leads work within a squad in some capacity as well, either as developer or technical lead, and not necessarily within a squad that has members of their chapter.

This chapters/squads matrix organization is critical to our organizational agility. It allows the squads and the tribe to be more fluid. We can spin up a new squad to take advantage of an opportunity or handle an issue without worry about changing reporting structures. If a squad completes its goals and has no reason to exist anymore, we can dissolve it without punishing a manager. This is a very important difference to a traditional hierarchy, because it gives us a lot of flexibility and helps us avoid the old political issues around empire building and resource contention.

In addition to our Tribes, Squads and Chapters, we also have virtual organizations called Guilds. Guilds are cross-tribe organizations centered on different technical or interest areas and their membership is voluntary. The guilds serve as ways to promote cross-tribe collaboration and communication, especially around things like best practices. For example, we have guilds for Web Development, Agile Practices, Leadership, Test Automation, etc. The guilds foster developer-to-developer communication, which is one of the ways that we keep all these autonomous teams from all going off in completely different directions.

From Henrik’s paper, this diagram illustrates the organizational structure I discuss above:

Screen Shot 2013-11-09 at 7.30.08 AM

I’d like to give some more background around why we have implemented this organizational model at Spotify; elaborate on our goals for implementing it, and discuss the aspects of our culture, which have been critical to its success. It is really great that other companies have been inspired by the way we work, but I think if you implement only parts of the model or try to impose it on a very different corporate culture; you will have a difficult time achieving the same level of success with it that we have had.

If you are considering using the Spotify organizational model within your company, there are a few things that will be critical to your success:

Our organization model assumes that engineering is doing development with agile methodologies. Our goals for autonomy mean that we do not prescribe any particular development framework our squads must subscribe to. However, all of squads use agile development methodologies. While we do our best to minimize dependencies between squads and tribes, there will always be some since we are all working on the same product. Any individual squad choosing to build using a traditional waterfall or other non-agile process would not be able to keep up with the rapidly changing teams around them. If they tried to impose some sort of process on other teams so that they could follow a longer-term development plan, they would start slowing down the rest of the organization.

A critical requirement in making our organization model work well is that the entire company works with and understands agile practices and processes. While our legal team isn’t doing scrum or kanban, they are used to working with engineering teams that use agile processes. Having the entire corporation understand and agree with agile means that no line of business area becomes an impediment to the speed of implementation. Think of this in terms of Amdahl’s law, applied to a development organization. If your development teams are working quickly in parallel, but marketing or legal is not supportive of an agile approach, they will become a bottleneck that will slow down the overall speed of the company.

Similarly, implementing this with just one team as a test in a larger engineering organization will be prone to issues. A traditional engineering organization is not usually set up for autonomy. Adding a single autonomous team within that web of dependencies is likely to hamper and frustrate the team and skew the results of the experiment.

While I’ve mentioned autonomy in several places already, I cannot understate its criticality. Each squad must be empowered to make their own decisions, not only on features, but also on development model, infrastructure, and implementation. Every decision that has to be approved outside the team means a delay that slows development. Each dictated implementation or infrastructure decision means that a technology that doesn’t fit to the way the team works or something new that must be learned before the team can build. This is a challenge to coordination, but in practice it isn’t as bad as it might seem. Best practices and technologies do spread from team to team through avenues like guilds. Teams adopt these practices and technologies on their own schedule or pioneer new ways of working if it makes it easier for them to deliver value to our customers and then spread their learnings to the other teams.

Trying to layer the tribe and squads model over a traditional reporting hierarchy would be very problematic. While we have many long-lived squads at Spotify, we are constantly creating and disbanding squads as new needs arise or missions are fulfilled. Squad membership will also ebb and flow as required by the needs of a squad’s mission. Traditional hierarchical organizations are self-perpetuating and restructuring them is very disruptive both to the management chains as well as the individual team members. You would gain some of the benefits of the Spotify model by building full-stack teams in a traditional organizational hierarchy, but you would lose a lot of the overall speed benefits that we leverage with our matrix organization.

In conclusion, if you are looking to improve the speed of your development and are inspired by Spotify’s organizational model, there are a few things that you need to understand. Our model works because it is layered on top of our corporate culture. Our culture values autonomy, agile processes, democratic teams, and servant leadership, amongst other things. You can certainly take some of the ideas from the way we work and apply them in your organization, but without the cultural underpinnings you may not get the same returns.

Some other references worth checking out are Henrik Kniberg’s keynote at the Paris Scrum Gathering and my keynote at the { develop: BBC } conference.

63 Replies to “Thoughts on emulating Spotify’s matrix organization in other companies”

  1. Awesome stuff Kevin! The one thing I don’t see discussed is measurement. Could you talk a little bit about how KPI’s (traffic, frequency, conversion, retention, etc) are managed/cascaded across Alliances/Tribes/Squads. A few concrete examples would be extremely helpful. Thanks in advance.

  2. Higher level metrics come to the Tribe or Alliance, depending on the scope. A metric should only be “owned” by the team that can actually move that metric and would have it’s mission to do so. So metrics like retention and MAU/DAU would be owner by the Consumer Alliance, while Conversion would be owned by the Revenue Alliance. Obviously, Revenue can affect retention (like by playing too many ads), and Consumer can affect Conversion (by providing a bad user experience), but each alliance is oriented towards success in those goals and can put checks on the others inadvertently ruining the commons.

  3. Nice article…but one thing bothers me. How do you handle ownership of your features in cases like incidents. Lets say, there is some problem in streaming music feature. Who is responsible for analyzing it and later for solving it? Problem could be in front-end, in back-end, in database… Finding solution to the problem could involve cooperation with people from different chapters. But If I understood you correctly, no one is responsible for the feature as the whole(from technical point of view). Because squads are not permanent, and people in the chapters are responsible only for “their” part of the whole feature. And it’s not only about incidents….someone should supervise the entire feature(i.e. if it’s still functioning as it was intended).

    Thank you

  4. Features are owned by squads. When squads change, features move to new squads. Squads are full-stack teams, so they can handle the issues front-end, back-end or mobile.

  5. Hi Kevin,

    How does Spotify deal with bad performers within tribes/squads? How do the teams evaluate members and make decisions as it relates to letting someone go?

    Thank you.

  6. While squads don’t have team managers, individuals do. The chapter leads are line managers and are responsible for handling issues that arise with the people that report to them.

  7. Hi Kevin,

    I understand chapter leads are part of a squad and are involved in the day-to-day work, which helps them stay in touch with reality.
    Next to that chapter leads are also line manager for their chapter members, with all the traditional responsibilities such as developing people, setting salaries, etc. (focus on technical excellence).

    If we say that a squad member takes on the role of a back-end developer for 50 % and the other 50 % he does the testing for the squad, than to which chapter does that person belong to?
    Who would be his line manager? Or would he than have two?

    Looking forward to hearing your point of vue,

  8. Hi Kevin
    “While squads don’t have team managers, individuals do. The chapter leads are line managers and are responsible for handling issues that arise with the people that report to them.”
    This is very clear to me as long as we look to individuals having roles within the squads wich are autonomous teams. But As you have a line manager for them you would need a line manager for the other roles : the Chapter leads for example who would be their line manager ? Same for Tribe leads or product managers.

  9. I’m not 100% sure if I understand your question correctly, Francois. Every person in the squad has a manager. At Spotify, the product and UX teams have a more traditional hierarchy, but the other roles are managed by Chapter Leads. Tribe Leads report to Mission Leads (this is a more recent development to handle the increasing number of tribes), and the Mission Leads report to the CTO.

  10. Hi Ann,

    It is not uncommon in squads for people to take on responsibilities from other disciplines on a temporary or permanent basis. In that situation, though, they would just pick the chapter that they feel most aligned to. Once you are in a chapter, you probably wouldn’t leave it unless you wanted a change of manager or you switched tribes.

  11. Hi Kevin,

    What’s the minimum number of people in your product + dev teams do you think is necessary to apply this organization? Looks like it only works if you have already plenty of resources available.
    How do you manage people working in multiple squads?

  12. To be sure, this is a lot more people and resource intensive over a more traditional organizational model. The minimum size of the team would be dependent on the mission of the team. Spotify had squads as small as three people, but a traditional feature squad supporting all of the Spotify consumer platforms would have usually been at least 8-10 people.

    People should only be in one squad at a time. Otherwise, how do they know what they are supposed to work on day-to-day?

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