I just finished The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim. This book is the sequel to The Phoenix Project, and is told from the point of view of a female Individual Contributor at the same company, and at the same time as The Phoenix Project. Both books do a great job educating the reader about foundational business and technical principles while telling a fun story about a retail company struggling with its digital transformation.

I've rarely seen fiction used as a delivery mechanism for business lessons. Business books can often feel too theoretical, as if the person writing the book has never actually worked at a company before. The narrative of the Unicorn Project is a strong way to root the principles taught in the book to near-real world examples. As a reader, I was able to relate strongly to the characters in the story and draw real comparisons between their experiences in the book and my own.

The book outlines the following five principles as ideals to strive for when working in any organization.

The Five Ideals

  1. Locality and Simplicity

Locality is what keeps systems loosely coupled. Teams can quickly and independently develop, test and deploy value to customers. Locality in our organizations allows teams to make decisions without having to communicate and coordinate with people outside the team. Simplicity enables locality. You should be able to create business value by changing one file, one module, one service.

  1. Focus, Flow and Joy

It's all about how our daily work feels. Is our work marked by boredom and waiting for other people to get things done on our behalf? Do we blindly work on small pieces of the whole, only seeing the outcomes of our work during a deployment when everything blows up, leading to firefighting, punishment, and burnout? Or do we work in small batches, ideally single-piece flow, getting fast and continual feedback on our work? These are the conditions that allow for focus and flow, challenge, learning, discovery, mastering our domain, and even joy.”

  1. Improvement of Daily Work

The most studied example of a learning organization is Toyota. The famous Andon cord is just one of their many tools that enable learning. When anyone encounters a problem, everyone is expected to ask for help at any time, even if it means stopping the entire assembly line. And they are thanked for doing so, because it is an opportunity to improve daily work. And thus problems are quickly seen, swarmed, and solved, and then those learnings are spread far and wide, so all may benefit. This is what enables innovation, excellence, and outlearning the competition.

The opposite of the Third Ideal is someone who values process compliance and “The way we've always done it.”

  1. Psychological Safety

No one will take risks, experiment, or innovate in a culture of fear, where people are afraid to tell the boss bad news. In those organizations, novelty is discouraged, and when problems occur, they ask ‘Who caused the problem?’ They name, blame, and shame that person. They create new rules, more approvals, more training, and, if necessary, rid themselves of the ‘bad apple,’ fooling themselves that they’ve solved the problem.”

Researchers at Google spent years on Project Oxygen and found that psychological safety was one of the most important factors of great teams: where there was confidence that the team would not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. “When something goes wrong, we should ask ‘what caused the problem,’ not ‘who.’

Psychological safety slips away so easily, when leaders micromanage, and aren't intellectually honest.

  1. Customer Focus

Ruthlessly question whether something actually matters to our customers, as in, are they willing to pay us for it or is it only of value to our functional silo? We must ask whether our daily actions truly improve the lives of our customer, create value for them, and whether they’d pay for it. And if they don’t, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it at all.