Steve Stone

Developer. Designer. Youth Worker. Nerd.

The Unicorn Project

February 18, 2022

I just finished The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim. Like The Phoenix Project it’s a business book hidden inside a fictional narrative. This book was written years after, but follows the same timeline with a different protagonist.

Maxine is an developer with years of experience at Parts Unlimited. Because of a snafu, she has been exiled to work on the massively overbudget Phoenix Project. After spending way too much time just trying to get credentials, dev environments, QA, and code to compile, she and a team of rebels decide that in order for the company to succeed and the Phoenix Project to work, they need to think outside the silos. They encourage one another, problem solve together, and (spoiler alert) end up finishing the project and make their teams healthy for the first time.

The book practically wrks through the "Five Ideals” philosophy

  1. Locality and Simplicity

Wherever possible it's important to keep things local and simple. When a build process has to go to a server or an approval has to go through a system teams begin to feel like a cog-in-the-machine and production slows. Same with complex systems. The more steps to complete a task will also slow things down. Ideally, in software terms, the dev will have a local environment and the build process is easily grok-able. In business terms, less process and more empowerment.

  1. Focus, Flow, and Joy

This is how daily work feels. People generally don't want to blindly work on a small piece of a big project, not knowing how their contribution will affect the end goal. They especially don't want to feel the brunt of everything when their contribution crashes the system, which happens in unhealthy teams. Instead, ideally they want to work in small batches and get continual feedback. This will lead to learning, discovery, mastery, and the flow state could even lead to joy.

  1. Improvement of Daily Work

In order to be happy where they are, employees need daily improvement of daily work. Approvals, tool changes, ticketing systems, sprints are all not inherently bad, but they tend to grow and not shrink. Instead, teams need to constantly work to iteratively improve these systems. This will help empower your team to make decisions on their own and increase your output.

  1. Psychologically Safety

People will strive where they feel safe, psychologically. If they are not afraid of ideas being shot down or finger pointing when things go wrong. When they feel safe they are more likely to invite, experiment, and take risks.

  1. Customer Focus

The final ideal is to align your team with the company goal. No, not a projected profit. Rather, the customer's happiness. If you can align your team around understanding how the customer feels currently, they can help solve problems they encounter. If your team is working alongside customers they can have empathy and find creative solutions that will impact the greater product.

Overall, I like it. Again, it's fun to read a business book in novel form. It's good to see practicals instead of bullet points. The characters were a little two-dimensional and at times the company seemed to morph to feed the story. I never really got an accurate sense of scale for the company. I would recommend though, because I liked how the ideals were lived out and not just written on a poster.