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  • Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim | The Big Ideas and Best Quotes

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

A book summary of The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim which includes the 5 ideals
A book summary of The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim

⭐ Toby's Rating: 7/10 - Recommended For: Coaches

3 Big Ideas

The Unicorn Project Summary

  1. Five Ideals: Locality and Simplicity; Focus, Flow and Joy; Improvement of Daily Work; Psychological Safety; and Customer Focus.

  2. Create a “Rebel Alliance” – A group of passionate change agents with a clear purpose. This emphasises John Kotter Change Management approach – Build a guiding Coalition

  3. Don’t put your best developers in feature development. Put them on developer productivity such as environments, build tools, test automation. This is what great tech companies do.

2 Unicorn Project Quotes

Better Value, Sooner, Safer, Happier
Microsoft, still has a culture that if a developer ever has a choice between working on a feature or developer productivity, they should always choose developer productivity.

Tobys Top Takeaway

Here is my top takeaway from The Unicorn Project:

Focus on building a stronger “Rebel Alliance” to create organisational change


Big Ideas Expanded

The Unicorn Project Summary expanded

Dependencies and Approvals significantly impact flow

Don’t outcast project management group. Take them on the journey with you. The project manager in this story was one of the biggest advocates

In the book, there is a strong connection to the State of DevOps survey Most of the drivers described in the survey are highlighted in the book

State of DevOps

Employees are often unaware of why existing policies, rules and procedures yet they continue to be blindly followed. This is often the case when safety is low and people are fearful of change.

Factors that reinforce the status quo:

  1. Fear

  2. Lack of clarity around goals

  3. High WIP/Busyness

  4. Leaders are difficult to get hold of

  5. Focus on delivery, not improvement

  6. Lack of autonomy

  7. Low transparency

  8. Senior Management holds all the crucial information – It is not local to the teams

Most organisations and implicitly designed to maintain the status quo and existing power balances

Focus on finding where the constraint is (TOC) As you improve the system the constraint will move from DEV > QA> OPS > Product > Business – The ideal scenario for most tech companies is where tech no longer becomes the bottleneck. Find bottlenecks.

A good ratio of UX developers is 1:6 regular developers. UX is a specialist skill. Most companies have 1:70 ratio

Change Management ethos in The Unicorn Project book:

  1. Build a coalition (Rebel Alliance)

  2. Find Quick Wins

  3. Celebrate Success

  4. Deliver value/Solve real problems

  5. Partnership across boundaries

  6. Brave Leadership – Leaders are willing to lose their jobs for the right thing

  7. The social aspect of teams are amplified – Get to know your colleagues. A lot of the best ideas happened around informal gatherings in bars and hangouts

  8. Tendency to hire people – If this does not resolve the bottleneck it often makes things worse

Prime Directive (Norm Kerth)

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Functional Programming principles emphasised throughout:

  1. Immutability

  2. Disciplined state

  3. Pure functions and no side effects/disciplined states

  4. First class functions and high order functions

  5. Type systems

  6. Referential transparency

Organisations should expect failure and put in adaptive processes to respond quickly to those failures and LEARN!

Only 1/3 of strategic ideas have positive results

< 5% of A/B Tests give a positive result

Increase the rate of learning to increase the rate of success

Geoffrey Moore Three Horizons

Geoffrey Moore Three Horizons

A lot of companies only focus on Horizon 1. In the book, the breakthrough came from an increasing focus on horizon 3.

Horizon 3 work requires rapid learning, experimentation. Perfect for adaptive ways of working

Introduce an innovation process to gather ideas from your company.

Horizon 1 and horizon 3 require different kinds of leaders!!

Horizon one is the core business, stable, predictable, and bureaucratic. Horizon two are smaller businesses that generate new customers, new capabilities and new markets. Horizons three businesses are the highly innovative organisations that explore brand new, disruptive and risky ideas.

Geoffrey Moore Four Zones

Geoffrey Moore Three Horizons Four Zones

Your internal development tools should be seen as products and managed like products

Developers are the customer

Use discovery techniques to understand what the customer(developers) want

Focus on GROWTH, not cost-cutting. Growth is more sustainable and promotes better, long term thinking.

Don’t manage dependencies, eliminate them!!

Geoffrey Moore – Core v Context

Geoffrey Moore Core Context

Reduce focus on context – Increase focus on Core business

Outsource “context” otherwise, it will cause distraction and lack of focus. Many companies incorrectly outsource their core business, often leading to very bad results – for example, outsource IT even though IT now is a core part of almost every business

Engage your employees within the change journey – Ask: What is the biggest blocker to Adaptability? Fund solutions to these problems

CAUTION: When you shake the system it will push back, sometimes with big consequences – In the book, a key change agent loses their jobs as senior management to not welcome the disruption to the status quo.

Three Types of culture explore in the book:

Organisational Culture Categories

The changes discussed in the book allow you to move from a power orientated culture to a performance related one.

Blinkist Wide


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