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Book Club

Unicorn Project

As a company, we read the Phoenix Project several years ago, and we could not wait to dig into the Unicorn Project by Gene Kim for our first book discussion of 2020. For seven weeks, we met on Fridays during lunch with 12+ devs, a project manager, and QA to talk about org culture, software team practices, how we related to the story, and how we didn't. Gene Kim delivers another good story (novel) about industry that was fun to read and full of information.

Mr. Kim sets the stage with the decades-old, billion-dollar company Parts Unlimited. The technology team and company culture are in chaos. We groaned at the finger-pointing and blaming, the disastrous deployment, the constant waiting for others, and the frustrations of Maxine (the main engineer character) as she attempted to make things better. The "Rebellion" went around the process to help others focus on customer needs and work together. Eventually, they succeed, with the help from some top execs (one fought against them), in an unbelievably short time frame. It took them months to turn things around, where we've experienced years. We wondered why Mr. Kim didn't extend the time frame.

There are many good practices laid out that are both technical and process focused. The "sensei" Erik, who is a bit like Yoda, introduces The Five Ideals and Core vs. Context, among others from quoted resources.

The Five Ideals are guiding principles:

THE FIRST IDEAL: Locality and Simplicity

THE SECOND IDEAL: Focus, Flow, and Joy

THE THIRD IDEAL: Improvement of Daily Work

THE FOURTH IDEAL: Psychological Safety

THE FIFTH IDEAL: Customer Focus

Core vs. Context is from Geoffrey Moore. "Cores are the central competencies of the organization. These are things that customers are willing to pay for and what investors reward." "Context is everything elseā€¦ They're often mission-critical such as HR, payroll, and email. But our customers do not pay us for.." (page 286)

If you decide to read the Unicorn Project, here are some great discussion questions:

  • How do Dev and QA interactions and teams morph overtime? How do you avoid waiting and increase teamwork (hint feature teams)?
  • Do you have feature teams that can get work done without waiting for others that have different priorities?
  • Explain Core vs. Context. How does it relate to your company?
  • What are the horizons in your company?
  • Do you have a learning culture?
  • Where does your team/company rank for each ideal?
  • Can people identify your company goals?
  • What is the next constraint you need to eliminate?
  • What groundwork is needed to enable data sharing/usage and Unicorn project (innovation, Horizon 3) teams?
  • How does your team decide what to work on next? (hint see page 172)

We encourage you to read the Phoenix Project (not required, but helpful) and the Unicorn Project. There is much more than what we mentioned in this article. These books may help your team to move towards the five ideals.