When wanting to improve their organisations, people believe that they should copy best practice. The underlying assumption is that copying will enable them to achieve the same results. Copying best practice is alluring. It is a plausible-sounding idea.

There are two conventional approaches taken. The first approach involves industrial tourism. People visit other organisations to see what they have done, then attempt to apply what they have seen back in their workplace. The second approach is to hire a big consulting firm or tool vendor, who did it to someone else, and ask them to transplant the same.

It was W. Edwards Deming who warned1 of the risks of copying:

People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing. To copy is to invite Disaster.

Attempting to copy and install is not a new phenomenon. For example, since the 1970s people have tried to copy and install the ‘Toyota Way’ into their organisations (under the banner of Lean). ‘Quality Circles’, ‘Value Stream Mapping’, ‘5S’, ‘Gemba Walks’, ‘PDCA’ and other tools were copied. When people were copying tools used in the Toyota Production System (TPS), they did not stop to ask themselves if they had the same problems to solve as Toyota which required these tools.

Taiichi Ohno, the man who developed the Toyota Production System, was clear that copying won’t provide answers. Instead, he advised2 leaders need to think differently about how to solve problems:

Unless we completely change how we think, there is a limit to what we can accomplish by continuing our same thinking. We cannot find a new path unless we take the leap and turn our awareness and our thinking upside down

Toyota leaders suggested that copying tools was folly; that it was the change in thinking behind the TPS that should be understood. Just as Deming’s warnings fell on deaf ears, their advice was also ignored. Since the 1970s, history has shown that no one attempting to copy TPS have been able to achieve the same results that Toyota achieved. It should have been a signal.

Let’s wind forward to today. Leaders are trying to solve the problem of improving how work and people are organised. The goal is to breakdown silos, reduce risk, and improve productivity, alignment, cross-collaboration and knowledge transfer. Over the years, there have been many models for improving work and organisation, ranging from autonomous workgroups to cross-functional teams to self-managed teams. One of the most popular models today, which many organisations are attempting to copy – as it is regarded as best practice – is the approach the music streaming service Spotify has taken with their model of squads, tribes, chapters and guilds.

 

Source: http://blog.crisp.se/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/SpotifyScaling.pdf

In the same way that Toyota leaders warned of the folly of copying the ‘Toyota Way’, Spotify leaders also warn against copying what has been termed the ‘Spotify way’. As an example, one of Spotify’s leaders was quoted in an InfoQ article3 aptly titled ‘Don’t Copy the Spotify Model’:

The model can help you to understand how things are done at Spotify, but it is not something that you should copy in your own organization.

The Spotify model changes all the time as people at Spotify learn and discover new things. We look at what we do, we examine the problems, and solve them

Marcin Floryan, Chapter Lead at Spotify, quotes Taiichi Ohno in his presentation ((There is no Spotify Model, Marcin Floryan, Spotify, 2016) ‘There is no Spotify Model ’: 

Stop trying to borrow wisdom and think for yourself. Face your difficulties and think and think and think and solve problems yourself

Despite Spotify leaders attempting to advise people not to copy, the ‘Spotify Way’ has been paraded as the best way for improving how work and people are organised. Warnings by Spotify leaders are conveniently ignored by protagonists. A blind eye is turned to the results of research into transformation failures where many of the organisations who have failed had implemented squads, tribes, chapters and guilds.

When thinking of copying, the starting point should be to the question if best practice is really best. This leads to question if we are solving the same problems of whom we want to copy. In the case of Spotify, the problem they are trying to solve is giving people access to all the music they want all the time – in a completely legal and accessible way. 

For the majority of organisations, their problems are clearly not the same, yet we find Spotify’s model of squads, tribes, chapters and guilds promulgated by methodology-protagonists as an essential step towards a new way of working in every organisation. Managers are sold the benefits by protagonists that implementing the ‘Spotify Way’ will result in the removal of hierarchy and bureaucracy across the whole organisation. Managers everywhere will be prone to assume that the promulgators must know what they are talking about. And yet, despite the rhetoric of company-wide transformation, people in the very places where customers interact with the organisation, for example, the store or branch network, field services, operations, or contact centres, are often excluded; even though they are the very places where the most amount of learning of what matters to customers occur. Other bastions such as the Finance department also escape; even though it is here where one of the most dominant centres of command-and-control logic resides. After the implementation of the ‘Spotify Way’, existing heads of silos are typically left in place, as are their budgets and targets – they remain sitting atop a conglomerate, with conventional management practices used to govern work remaining unchanged.

To to solve the problem of improving how work and people are organised, what is required is the application of a different philosophy, where high-value work is defined that sets the context for improvement, people are organised and enabled to do that work more effectively, and productive leadership practices are embedded. Sustainable positive behaviour and culture results. That’s a better place to start rather than copying.


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  1. quotes.deming.org/10177 and quotes.deming.org/4750, The W. EDWARDS Deming Institute 

  2. Ohno, Taiichi. Taiichi Ohnos Workplace Management: Special 100th Birthday Edition (p. 18). McGraw-Hill Education. 

  3. Don’t Copy the Spotify Model, Ben Linders, InfoQ, 2016