• Toby Sinclair

Book Summary - The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim

Updated: Aug 3


A book summary of The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim

3 Big Ideas:

  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 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.

1 Action:

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

The Unicorn Project: A Novel about Digital Disruption, Redshirts, and Overthrowing the Ancient Powerful Order


A longer summary if you have time.....

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 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 hold 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 the 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 book:

  1. Build 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. Social aspect of teams are amplified – Get to know you 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 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 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 businessExample:


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 looses 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


Case Study to highlight importance of optimisation goal:


https://www.forbes.com/sites/roddwagner/2019/01/22/have-we-learned-the-alcoa-keystone-habit-lesson/

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©2020 by Toby Sinclair.