Book Review: The Unicorn Project

The book’s background

It’s rare to read a lot of books like The Unicorn Project. Like its predecessor, The Phoenix Project, it uses a business novel format to teach. This is no surprise as the author was one the original authors of The Phoenix Project. If you’ve read books like Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Getting Naked, or The Goal, you’ll be familiar with this format. The Phoenix Project introduced the story of Parts Unlimited. The Unicorn Project borrows that context to focus on the planning and software side. It’s ultimately about Parts Unlimited’s digital transformation. (N.B. affiliate links)

The Unicorn Project

A bit about the story

The book’s protagonist is a talented senior software developed called Maxine. It’s easy to empathise with her if you’ve worked in large software organisations. Upon returning from vacation she’s thrown into the maelstrom of the Phoenix Project. It’s an infamous project with great ambitions, a lot of visibility and also a lot of problems. The Phoenix Project has so much accidental complexity, underscored by Maxine’s frustrating onboarding. The book brings her eternal optimism to life as she struggles to get started with the basics.

Her frustrations are understandable as well. The author has somehow combined all possible tragedies you might find in an aged “IT enterprise.” Maxine has to battle countless ticketing systems, none of them integrated. She has to navigate through rigid department silos with heavyweight hand-offs and sign-offs. There’s even a building she is not authorised to enter, even though her work relies on the people inside! The Phoenix Project includes a wide variety of proprietary software and programming languages. It has almost no documentation and no automation. It’s like stepping into the dark ages where there’s a build team and an “integration phase.”

As Maxine pushes for much needed improvements, she discovers the Rebellion. The Rebellion is a band of equally optimistic IT employees wanting to improve things. They want to remove bureaucracy and spend time having customer impact instead of on paperwork. Maxine meets The Rebellion at their regular meeting place, the Dockside, a nearby pub. It also happens to be where Erik Reid, Board Member and mysterious advisor offers his guidance throughout the book. He is also conveniently one of the owners behind the pub.

Working together with the Rebellion Maxine is able to find a way to improve the Phoenix Project. Others see the opportunities Maxine and the Rebellion create and their impact escalates. The rest of the book is about how they continue to improve the system and organisation. The end result is the successful digital transformation of Parts Unlimited.

What you can learn from the book

The book is full of teaching moments such as:

  • Tips on running a software team
  • The importance of modern engineering practices
  • Organisational design
  • Product planning processes; and
  • Leadership principles

The mysterious board member, Erik Reid, name some obvious ones under the “Five Ideals” label:

  1. The First Ideal – Locality and Simplicity
  2. The Second Ideal – Focus, Flow and Joy
  3. The Third Ideal – Improvement of Daily Work
  4. The Fourth Ideal – Psychological Safety
  5. The Fifth Ideal – Customer Focus

Who’s this book for?

If you’re working for a digital native, or tech-founder led company, this book is less likely to resonate with you. It might even make you a bit frightened of working for a less tech-centric company. It’s a must read for leaders considering, or on their path to “digital transformation”.

During my consulting days, we often talked about the importance of thinking about “tech at the core” of business. This book highlights the consequences in today’s software age what happens when tech is neglected. It also shows what an impact it can have, and some of the steps people can take on the way. Thus useful for anyone on this journey.

My personal lessons learned

Many of the situations at Parts Unlimited resonated with me. It’s likely because I’ve seen these from the inside of many companies I consulted for. In start up and scale up land, the journey outlined is less relevant. But the Five Ideals and many practices Parts Unlimited ends up adopting are still relevant.

Maxine is also a great role model as a leader. She demonstrates that she is an accomplished Maker. But she also exercises her Multiplier mode again and again throughout the book. Maxine is a classic Technical Leader. She is very capable of executing on her own but she wants to achieve more. She’s the perfect role model of a Technical Leader described in the Trident Model of Career Development. Maxine doesn’t need to own areas or products. She wants to see continuous improvement, encouraging and enabling others to contribute too. There’s a great surprise for her at the end of the book but I won’t spoil it here for you. You’ll have to read it instead. Get a copy here.

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