Squads, Tribes & Chapters: How the Spotify Model Plays at Telekom

Squads, Tribes and Chapters: How the Spotify Model Plays at Deutsche Telekom


Agile work is a hot topic right now, with agile methods being used in many variations around the world to manage complex projects. Deutsche Telekom, too, has been working with agile methods since 2010 and can point to several products out in the market already that grew out of this approach.

Flexibility is the decisive advantage of working this way. Enterprises that bet on agile methods to manage their projects can react faster and in a better fashion when conditions change and leverage those changes. What’s more, agile methods bring together experts from different disciplines such as developers, designers and programmers. They all work together on a project, deliberately tackling it from different angles and constantly exchanging information and insights.


Spotify cues up the agile organization


When it comes to being successful as an organization and managing projects, look no further than music streaming service Spotify. The company had been growing rapidly since 2006 and soon faced the challenge how to coordinate 30 teams in three cities. As a response, it broke up its organization into micro-units called squads. Squads are agile teams that develop individual functions of a product and then integrate them. Those small units boost efficiency, promote the free flow of information and constant learning. The squads are part of larger entities called tribes which emerge around topics.


Telekom plugs into the Spotify model

Here’s how Michael Kaselow, Deutsche Telekom’s agile coach, puts it: “We’ve adapted the Spotify model to our needs. The challenge is that our structure didn’t organically grow as with Spotify, but was put in place later. That means agile coaches like me have to make sure it works. Since we can’t’ draw on a lot of material about this type of organization, we have cultivated an atmosphere of learning by doing and adjust things to fit our needs. When working on new topics or products we have to create new squads, tribes or chapters.”

Take the eLIZA project which has 15 squads distributed across four tribes. In addition, here are so-called chapters made up of squad and tribe members who share the same professional background. These groups of, say, developers, user experience experts, designers or usability testers are connected across their squads’ borders and can come up with new shared working methods.

Explains Kaselow: “It’s not necessary to create an individual test bed for each development squad. There are a lot things you can share or build together, and that’s what chapters are for.” Members regularly meet at “campus” events where individual squads present their milestones and sometimes even have external experts speak about particular topics. The dual goals are to enable continuous learning and promote informal knowledge sharing, always with the awareness that the different units — squads, tribes and chapters — can only meet new challenges together.


A new type of entrepreneurship

Spotify did not only come up with a novel, progressive type of organization but also created a new understanding of management that helps rethink conventional behavior. It brought fun, motivation and a sense of personal agency back into the everyday workplace because Spotify’s model also emphasizes values such as autonomy.

From Kaselow’s point of view, “autonomy means that those who are responsible can delegate their responsibilities. When the boss says: ‘Build me a bridge across the river,’ team members will use their experience to build that bridge. But they keep asking for details. What materials should we use? What are the dimensions? If, on the other hand, the manager just asks for a solution to cross that river, it creates open-ended freedom to search for solutions. You could dig a tunnel, fly or take a boat across.”

The gift of autonomy, then, is the real beauty of this model, but it’s also a challenge. How much freedom can you give and use to avoid a situation in which everybody would tackle his or her task without a plan? How narrowly defined should the initial marching orders be so they don’t suppress the creative search for solutions? An enterprise, after all, doesn’t’ exist for its own sake or to entertain its employees. “There’s no doubt that a large enterprise wants to see results,” says Kaselow. “That means we always have to deal with time or budget constraints.”


Spotify’s model dials up job satisfaction

Combining development and operations teams creates synergies and promotes the seamless handover of projects. “Surveys show that the satisfaction of our team members has gone up, which has a positive effect on overall working conditions and how successful projects are,” according to Kaselow. Often it’s the small things that make a difference: “The simple fact that we don’t speak about projects and partial projects anymore avoids evoking old-fashioned project management concepts. It helps to use a new terminology,” the coach explains. “Unlike the usual way of organizing projects, chapters make sure that certain elements, practices and experiences are shared across the entire organization.”

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