As Senior Developer Maxine Chambers is exiled to the Phoenix Project for her alleged role in helping cause a payroll failure, she reacts with horror as she discovers no one there can do anything by themselves. And this, according to author Gene Kim, a leader of the DevOps movement in enterprise technology, is what catalyzes her to join a band of tech rebels, a group trying to recreate engineering culture at a company that has stagnated technologically, and, not surprisingly, in it’s former market leadership position. Understanding that the company is on the verge of collapse, these bold technologists create the Unicorn Project, not with the intention of creating a VC-loving mythical beast, but something founded in principles that will bring the magic of engaging and drawing out the unique talents of everyone in a new kind of workplace: dependent on technology, yes, but technology produced through processes that benefit not only the end customers but everyone inside the business as well.
The book is written in the form of a novel; there are no call-out notes, review chapters, or anything that feels like a workbook or how-to here. The author does elaborate on five principles, which are the crux of all of the methods he has the various characters use to change the course of this sinking ship.
As every good novel goes, there are heros, villains, squads of good guys and bad guys, some converts from one side to the other, and a happy ending where a new world order is established. The entire story could be told in a movie or on TV in one sitting. It’s relatively clearcut without many subplots, yet feels realistic because it is based on his years of observation, investigation and direct work with enterprise companies and the people in tech who have to design, develop and run operations. There is everything to believe that this story is going on every day still, as the business landscape is littered with old giants gone, mergers and acquisitions frantically occurring to stem the tide of change, and the market-Unicorns and Startups hoping to become the next FAANG (Facebook/Apple/Amazon/Netflix/Google) as we watch breathlessly in nightly news broadcasts.
In an interview with Gene Kim, he points out why he decided to write this, his second book, that tells essentially the same tale he told in his earlier book, The Phoenix Project, but from the angle of someone else in the company:
“The book is not about the bridge crew, which I guess was more of the world of Bill Palmer, the V.P. of I.T. operations in The Phoenix Project. This is really about the Red Shirts on the front lines, doing the daily work, everyday. And one of my aspirations is a show that they might be the most important people in in the organization, if our aspirations are to be digitally relevant or whatever: To get close to the customer, to better take them on the journey that they need to go on.
And for us to thrive as a company is how much of the value creation is done by developers. So this is not something that we can dismiss or delegate away. That’s one of the things I’m hoping, that The Unicorn Project will help advance that discussion and the five ideals was just a way to be able to show a non technologist WHAT is important [for these people].”
THE FIRST IDEAL: Locality and Simplicity. There needs to be simplicity in everything that is done. The last place an organization wants complexity is internally, whether it’s in their code, their organization, or their processes. Simplicity enables locality. Locality in code is what keeps systems loosely coupled, enabling delivery of features faster. Locality in organizations allows teams to make decisions without having to communicate and coordinate with people outside the team.
THE SECOND IDEAL: Focus, Flow, and Joy. How does your daily work feel? Is your work marked by boredom and waiting for other people to get things done on your behalf? Do you work on small pieces of the whole without seeing the bigger picture? Daily work should be completed in small batches, ideally single-piece flow, getting fast and continual feedback on your work. These conditions allow for focus and flow, challenge, learning, discovery, mastering our domain and even joy.
THE THIRD IDEAL: Improvement of Daily Work. Problems must be solved on the front lines, where daily work is performed by the world’s foremost experts who confront those problems most often. This dynamic allows employees to change and improve how they work, informed by learning. When anyone encounters a problem, everyone is expected to ask for help at any time, even if it means stopping the entire assembly line. As a result, problems are quickly seen, swarmed, and solved and then learning spreads far and wide, to benefit all, enabling innovation, excellence, and outlearning the competition.
THE FOURTH IDEAL: Psychological Safety. An innovative culture should be free of fear. Employees should be able to speak about problems with honesty; honesty requires the absence of fear. No one will take risks, experiment, or innovate in a culture of fear, where people are afraid to tell the boss bad news. When something goes wrong, organizations should ask “what” caused the problem not “who” and commit to doing what it takes to make tomorrow better than today.
THE FIFTH IDEAL: Focus on the Customer. Ruthlessly question whether something actually matters to your customers: Are they willing to pay us for it or is it only of value to our functional silo? Ask whether a daily action truly improves the lives of customers, creates value for them, and whether they would pay for it. Are you truly striving for what is best for them or is it about more parochial goals that they don’t care about, such as internal plans of record or how your functional silos are measured.