3 lessons for IT leaders from “​​​​​​​The Unicorn Project”

Gene Kim’s new book brings us back to fictional company Parts Unlimited, where lead developer Maxine experiences frustrations that ring all too true. What can you take away for your DevOps and digital transformation work? Plenty
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Five stars, two thumbs up, and git commit. I breezed through reading Gene Kim’s “The Unicorn Project,” much like I couldn't put “The Phoenix Project” down. I love Kim’s writing style and the way he contrasts the reality of an entrenched corporate environment built for rules, stability, and process with a DevOps world that wants to meet the organizational objectives, focus on the customer, and execute the CEO’s vision.

Maxine is exiled from a great engineering position to the bowels of a “key" project and told to “lay low.”

The book, which will be available on Nov. 26, is billed as “a novel about developers, digital disruption, and thriving in the age of data.” From the beginning of lead character Maxine’s exile from a great engineering position in Parts Unlimited to the bowels of a “key” project to change the company’s trajectory, where she was then told to “lay low,” I was hooked on the storyline.

I’ve been in some of those meetings. I’ve experienced some of those frustrations. Many of the scenarios in the book reminded me of the experiences described in “Disrupted” by Dan Lyons  –  more so because of the reality of the tech industry.

Three takeaways from “The Unicorn Project”

1. Learn the Five Ideals

My absolute favorite part of the book was how Kim intertwined what he calls the Five Ideals throughout the entire story. In a blog, Kim describes these ideals as a way “to frame what I think are the most important problems facing engineering and business today:”

  • 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

The only thing I wanted more of was some of the executive conversations that happened: These helped transform the fictional Parts Unlimited organization from a stale, dying company on the brink of extinction to a learning organization lead by elite members of the IT organization, who freed themselves of archaic processes that had dug their own grave.

If your organization is not familiar with the Five Ideals, learn them now. Start to look at ways to incorporate them into your teams. There are numerous examples throughout the book that you can apply.

2. Avoid death by process

It was obvious to me, as someone who works in tech and is able to incorporate DevOps and agile practices into my everyday work, how “the Rebellion” (a group of the best and brightest engineers in the company, training in secret to become a learning organization) was able to foster change and show the organization how to execute on key business objectives. For someone who doesn’t live in that environment, or for someone who strives to work like “the Rebellion” team, this book can help lead you to a path where work can be fun, simple, safe, and rewarding.

Does your organization have a “nothing gets through” review board?

How did the Rebellion team do it? There were many examples where they were able to “hack” the system and circumvent existing processes put in place to address past problems. The company never took the opportunity to reflect on how these rules and processes were impacting the business in a negative way.

My favorite example from the book was the IT review board (called the TEP-LARB: Technology Evaluation Process-Lead Architecture Review Board) – or as Kim so eloquently described it, the “nothing gets through” board. This group served as the ultimate blocker to innovation in the organization. If you don’t have a progressive IT review board, then you may want to consider dismantling it or revising its role in your organization.

If your IT team is saddled with too much process, find ways to implement the first and fourth ideals. Reduce the amount of overhead with processes, forms, and dependencies and figure out how teams get working with simplified and streamlined processes. And of course, making sure teams feel safe being honest and blameless about problems and solutions is critical.

3. Realize the power of self-organization

Although not explicit in the book, there’s an underlying theme about self-organization. The team members that made up “the Rebellion” were opting in to project tasks where their expertise was a good fit or where they wanted to learn more.

If you’re familiar with “The Open Organization,” by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst, this sort of opt-in culture translates to strong self-organization, where people work on things they’re passionate about and which matter to the customer.

The team focused on finding the workflow with the least resistance that was repeatable.

The second and fourth ideals are very important to foster self-organization. The team members in “the Rebellion” didn’t really let the org chart get in the way. They focused on the best way to approach a challenge to solve a customer problem, and streamlined their work to put more focus on their customer.

The team focused on finding the workflow with the least resistance that was repeatable: That’s particularly important when we’re talking about development build environments and production deployments.

Refreshing and realistic ideas

For organizations looking to start a digital transformation, “The Unicorn Project” may introduce you to the moonshot company you’ve been waiting for to model your organization after. Yes, it’s a fictitious story, but it’s based on the reality of many tech constraints today, plus the dramatic realities of corporate deadbeats who want to protect their budget and the way things have always been done.

It was refreshing to read about the ideas, possibilities, and energy from a group of IT leaders who wanted to create positive change for their organization. This is what’s needed in the corporate world, and I would extend that to small businesses too. As many of us have heard from Patrick Fisher, all companies are technology companies now. And if they don’t realize that, they are in jeopardy. If they read “The Unicorn Project” and don’t get it, they’re doomed.

Enjoy the story, and if you’re in the middle of a digital transformation, I hope this book can propel your organization to make the next leap in progress, or offer an example to apply to your journey.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Jason Hibbets is a Principal Program Manager at Red Hat with the Digital Communities team. He works with the Enable Architect, Enable Sysadmin, Enterprisers Project, and Opensource.com community publications.