“The Spotify Model” and the cult of the Unicorn

One of the things that I have encountered repeatedly was the copy and paste adoption of the “Spotify Model” and other practices from Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and other large unicorns.

“The Spotify Model” and the cult of the Unicorn
Photo by Stephen Leonardi / Unsplash

Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege to talk to quite a few different companies. One of the things that I have encountered repeatedly was the copy and paste adoption of the “Spotify Model” and other practices from Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and other large unicorns. I once attended an internal developer conference of a global bank that was rolling out the Spotify model exactly as Spotify had written about it!

Even small companies that are nowhere near the scale of these businesses are adopting their practices whole scale.

Why? Well engineering software is sometimes more of an art than a science. There is no “one true way” to build things. We encounter so many problems and challenges as we try to build delightful products that we hope have exponential growth (a need often driven by investors). We experience so many pressures to build things faster and better that it is only natural to want to copy what other successful companies are already doing.

There are good and bad motivations for wanting to do this. The bad - to deliver a fast return for the investors or take a shortcut to success (spoiler I don’t think there is a shortcut). The good - we have lots of problems and we want to make things better for our staff and our customers by constantly improving.

I try to think in terms of “systems” and “principles” because you can’t pick just one isolated thing from one company like Spotify (or Google etc.) and think it will work in your context. In fact places like Spotify have had to adopt practices that match their scale and the scale they serve their customers. In the public talks they make it is useful to try to spot the principles that you can apply in your context. Or, what practices do they use that could be translated into your context to solve the problems you have.

I’ve tried lots of different approaches but I’m coming more and more around to the belief that the most powerful tool in our toolbox is the retrospective. When we look at what is working and what isn’t working in our organisation and then make changes to our context to see if they make a difference. Like poking a black box and seeing if we get different results.

Our North Star for these changes should always be what difference can we make to our customer/user and our staff.

I’m a big believer in Pieter Hintjens’ theory of Heuristic Innovation:

  1. There is an infinite problem/solution terrain.
  2. This terrain changes over time according to external conditions.
  3. We can only accurately perceive problems we are close to.
  4. We can rank the cost/benefit economics of problems using a market for solutions.
  5. There is one temporarily optimal solution to any solvable problem.
  6. We can approach this optimal solution heuristically, and mechanically.
  7. Our intelligence can make this process faster and more accurate but does not replace it.

What I like is that the retrospective serves us very well to be able to pause our work to identify the problems we are close to and then to rank the cost/benefit of these problems so we can decide which ones to solve first.

This way we don’t go chasing after a silver bullet to all of our problems by copying Spotify after we hear a talk from them.

It IS useful to watch and listen to talks and read books about how others have solved similar problems. When we expand our horizons beyond where we are we encounter other ideas, other ways of thinking, other ways of solving similar problems to our own.

When we do this we are able to extract the gold, the principles and practices that we can experiment and try in our context to see if they work for our organisation. This way we can go beyond purely “cargo culting” new ideas. We can embrace thoughtful change in our organisation as we try to make our workplace and our products better.

One thing that does start to emerge when you see how various high performing organisations work is patterns. There are distinct patterns that work at different stages of an organisations growth and patterns that seem to be universal, like focusing on customer outcomes.

It is always worth keeping in mind that when organisations talk about themselves they very rarely talk about what doesn’t work, everything always seems so perfect. Don’t believe that for a moment, the grass is not greener on the other side. Talks like these happen because folks are building their career and reputation inside and outside their organisations and because they want you to work there. All good reasons but not good reasons to just accept that you should do things just like them.

I like to separate what I encounter into a set of principles and practices.

Some principles hold true only in certain contexts and others are applicable most of the time. Practices on the other had are useful in certain situations and less so in others.

Practices are like golf clubs, I don’t play golf so stay with me if I get this wrong. You need to use the appropriate club for where you are. You don’t use a putter when you need to chip the ball, though I’m sure some folks are skilled enough to do that!

If you are interested to see more practices my friends at the Red Hat Open Innovation Labs have been doing a great job of collecting and curating practices over at the Open Practice Library. If you use a practice that you don’t see please do add it and your experiences of using it to the library as it is open source.

I did want to add one final thought. Some of the principles and practices these companies talk about are great for your context! If you thoughtfully adapt and apply them you will see real problems solved. I highly recommend talking to folks who worked on these ideas in their organisations to find out why they did certain things, what they tried before and what problems they have today. I have always found folks to be surprisingly open to share what they have learnt.

Beyond the Spotify model there have been other waves of ideas flowing out of these organisations. One that immediately comes to my mind is the movement from monolith to micro services. Can you think of others?

What do you think?

Jeremy (he/him)


Don't ignore your dreams, don't work too much, say what you think, cultivate friendships, be happy.