Dare to be different (part 2)

March 29, 2017 Published by benjispotify

Culture at Spotify

My co-workers at Spotify often quote the famous Peter Drucker saying:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

And to be honest, when I first heard them say it I simply nodded, as it sounded smart and I didn’t disagree. However, having just hit month six at Spotify, I can now hopefully say I truly get what they were on about.

Spotify talks about culture at every level. We interview for it, we preach about it and we certainly argue about it. It’s a set of unwritten rules, which we all adhere (or at least aspire) to, not because someone told us we have to, but because we believe in them.

Spotify has a culture based around common sense, not common practice. Nothing I say will be shocking and I imagine if you read this, you will think: “well that’s the way it should be” and you’d be correct. We don’t pretend to have invented anything, we simply don’t listen to those quoting ‘best practice’ and we trust what we know to be true: a company’s culture is defined by the people who work for it.

Respect, Equality and Health

It should go without saying that everyone is respectful of each other in the workplace, but sadly this is often not the case; Spotify prides itself on being a company where it is (it seems Skyscanner is another). We praise each other openly, give credit where due and believe that the sum of parts is greater than the whole. We strive for equality of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and anything else that makes you you. There will always be times when we let ourselves down, and we can always do better, but I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t take respect seriously. For example, Spotify could certainly be more diverse, but this is not something being swept under the carpet; it is instead put front and centre on the list of ‘things we need to fix’.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you leave your personality at the door when you walk in, but quite the opposite; we want you to bring everything about yourself with you to work – that’s what makes you special. There will be occasions when emotions overspill. Some people will cry, possibly because they are sad, possibly because they are happy; either way someone will be there for them. To pretend that the things happening outside of work don’t affect us when we’re in the office, is not only foolish, but creates a kind of split personality disorder that is unhealthy for all concerned. All we ask is for everyone to be themselves.

Conversation and Consensus

We don’t shout. Let me say that again: we don’t shout. Why would we, who does it help? This isn’t to say we don’t disagree and occasionally we overstep and upset each other; but we apologize and move forward. We understand that disagreement comes from a good place, because we care about the topic being discussed.

We ask each other what we think, because we believe that’s how you make good decisions. Sometimes the quieter people are dominated by the louder ones, but we acknowledge that isn’t the way it should be and coach each other to do better.

We seek consensus when possible, as we believe that everyone’s voice is equal.

We Believe in Each Other

Norm Kerth created a ‘prime directive’ for use at the start of retrospective workshops:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Nothing permeates Spotify culture like the ability of people to assume positive intent. We avoid speculation wherever possible and remind each other to assume the best on a daily basis. We not only trust that everyone wants the company to succeed, but also that everyone wants everyone else to succeed on a personal level.

This ethos allows employees to express themselves without fear of reprisal. Until now, I have never worked in companies where people will ‘reply all’ and speak their mind, even if the original thread was started by a director. Debates will happen; but because we believe in each other, those involved will be open to challenge and respectful of the views presented. It is aspirational.  


No one is going to tell you what to do. No one is going to pull rank. No one is above being questioned. There are obviously exceptions to these statements, like everything else I discuss; but in the majority, they are entirely true. This should be obvious, but for many it is so far from how their company functions, they won’t even believe me.

Spotify is based around autonomy. Individuals choose what they work on, teams decide how they make an impact and tribes (a collection of teams) define their own mission. This is how you build a company that experiments and innovates. It’s so simple, but so different to most places where I have worked.

Strategy directives are adapted and applied to meet the needs of those doing the work. Our senior leaders understand that autonomy is is crucial for effective delivery and trust each business area to adapt new ideas before they adopt them. This is not only a good thing, it is a crucial aspect of what makes Spotify awesome.


Spotify believes that everyone can benefit from having a coach; regardless of seniority or tenure. So they invest in coaches like me to help individuals and teams become the best possible version of themselves.

The coach’s role is to help others achieve their goals and hopefully make them happier in the process. They listen, they question and most importantly they are there when you need them most. Considering present day politics, this is a privilege and a responsibility that the coaches at Spotify do not shy away from.

And we’re not alone in our belief, as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says:

“So many people are unhappy at their jobs, for various reasons; it could be the work itself, the culture, the lack of autonomy, all those things are things that we want to hopefully show that there is a different and better way of, not just work, but I like to think of it as life”

Because Spotify already has an amazing culture, I spend much of my day maintaining (and tweaking) it, rather than dramatically changing it. The coaches at Spotify help colleagues to find their voice, celebrate failure (no matter how embarrassing) and to simply be themselves.

Be different, we dare you.

Part 1 of this blog is about my journey so far and can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dare-different-part-1-benji-portwin