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3 lessons from The Unicorn Project

I try to read (listen) one book per month. It’s been mainly self-development books. And to be honest I got a bit tired. However, recently I talked to a friend and a colleague who recommended me a fiction book with a unicorn in the title… I read the full title and immediately started to listen. I could not stop, I emerged completely. Today I would like to share three main lessons I learnt from The Unicorn Project book. Let’s go!

The Five Ideals

The first thing I want to mention is the Five Ideals concept. It is a robust framework that we should implement to our work, but also generally to life. The benefits are enormous.

The First Ideal: Locality and Simplicity

“Locality in our organizations allows teams to make decisions without having to communicate and coordinate with people outside the team, potentially having to get approvals from distant authorities or committees so far removed from the work that they have no relevant basis to make good decisions,” he says, clearly disgusted.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

It is the opposite to hardcoded changes, procedures that never change, and “we always do it this way” approach. For the leadership, it means decentralised command. It would help if you allowed people to make individual decisions for themselves. They know the best. The First Ideal is also one of the prerequisites for asynchronous work. We can’t depend on someone else to move and progress our work.

The Second Ideal: Focus, Flow, and Joy

“For the leader, it no longer means directing and controlling, but guiding, enabling, and removing obstacles.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project
Flow concept by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Back to back meetings, steering committees approving your work and the lack of the sense of achievements at the end of the day. Nightmare, but yet, it’s the daily bread for many people. The Second Ideal is about the flow. We should be able to focus on challenges. The challenges should be hard enough to keep us motivated and engaged. On the other hand, they should not be too complicated to avoid exhaustion. (Look at the graph of The Flow concept by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)

The Third Ideal: Improvement of Daily Work

“The Third Ideal is Improvement of Daily Work. It is the dynamic that allows us to change and improve how we work, informed by learning. As Sensei Dr. Steven Spear said, ‘It is ignorance that is the mother of all problems, and the only thing that can overcome it is learning.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

It is the core for agile method. It could be implemented to work, parenting and in life generally. We should always keep improving our environment. It could be as easy as moving your coffee machine to the better spot, so you save 15 seconds in the morning. Through running retrospective after every complete project or outage. Up to deciding what to learn now, so that you can improve your skills and apply for a better job. But it all starts with tiny steps, that will save us literally two seconds.


📖 Recommended read: “2 Second Lean Book”.

The Fourth Ideal: Psychological Safety

“The Fourth Ideal is Psychological Safety, where we make it safe to talk about problems, because solving problems requires prevention, which requires honesty, and honesty requires the absence of fear.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

The Fourth Ideal is the core of growth. If there is no psychological safety, people will follow the orders, do the minimum required to keep their job and in the end leave at the first opportunity. Psychological safety allows creating the culture of mutual respect, bonds of loyalty, growth, love, help and readiness for assistance. Trades of character that we know from another book: “Heroic Leadership”.

The Fifth Ideal: Customer Focus

“And if we can’t experiment, we can’t learn!”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

It is so easy to forget, even when we look at the other four ideals. We want to work locally, have fun while working on the newest and shiniest technology. We want to keep improving our daily work and do it in an environment that is friendly. But why we do what we do? What is our inner compass when we make decisions? It’s too easy to get detached from the broader company mission. We do what we do to serve our customers. It could be internal customers and could be our external, paying customers, but our mission should always be to keep the short feedback loop with them. Experiment, improve and produce value for them and with them in the process.

The Three Horizons

The second lesson is the concept of The Three Horizons. It is the way to organise the whole companies to make sure they have a continuity plan, and even they survive. But, we can also take a look at this with the narrower perspective; our smaller group and even particular team.

Horizon 1: mature businesses

“Ward Cunningham in 2003. He said, ‘technical debt is what you feel the next time you want to make a change.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

Most companies focus on this horizon only. We have our core business. It makes money. We try to sell, renew and reiterate on the product versions. Activities in this horizon support existing business models. The business model is known, often it is the same model that was presented ages as the business plan when the company was in the startup phase.

This horizon is the primary revenue for the company. If we focus on the team “view”, this could be the usual daily proceedings, the way the team operates and what and how we work in everyday circumstances.

Horizon 2: rapidly growing businesses

“Achieving this greatness is never free. It requires focus and elevation of improvement of daily work, even over daily work itself. Without this ruthless focus, every simple system degrades over time, increasingly buried under a tundra of technical debt.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

The second horizon is looking beyond the well-known and well-established business model. It is trying to innovate, think about the second product. Often, it is promoted by the rapid changes in the field and industry sector. Is focuses on extending existing businesses with partially known business models.

For the team “view” we may want to innovate to do things in a better way. It could be an effort to automate, to move to the remote work model. Everything that is going to be different from the current “horizon 1” way of proceeding.

💡Pro tip💡: We can try to implement Innovation Fridays. We work usual way Mon-Thur, and on Fridays we allow our team to work on any innovation that may be a new product, a new tool, better way of working when the thing is promoted to horizon 1 “business as usual”.

Horizon 3: emerging businesses

“If there’s any time that deserves courage and relentless optimism, it’s now,”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

Horizon 3 is the most disruptive effort. It usually needs some investment in the separate team or department. It is a conscious effort and approach towards innovation. This horizon also requires a tolerance for failure. Not everything that is going to be invented is going to make it towards horizon two and eventually horizon one.

Sometimes it is a serious pivot from the current company strategy. It often means something we call the “product cannibalism”. Is focuses on unknown business models so that it is riskier.

📖 Recommended read: Lean Innovation Management – Making Corporate Innovation Work

Core and Context

“My job is very simple: listen, do whatever you need me to do to help make you successful, and remove any obstacles in your way.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

Finally, the first lesson is the Core and Context concept. In essence. The core is our main focus. It is the ONE thing that we should be focusing on as the company, business unit or the team. It is usually the product, or line of products that we do, we want to be the best at, and we offer to our customers.

The context is everything that we do to support our core business. Those are all tools that we need to maintain to support the product. There are also all systems that we need to communicate with each other, including teams that need to support “product” teams, like HR, for instance.

In our “team view,” the core is everything that we do as the primary focus. Network team support all things networking, the Sales team is supposed to, well … sale. The context in this view is everything that agile methodology defines as the “waste”. For instance: long meetings, unnecessary procedures, obsolete tools that need support and no one knows how they work.

It is all about balance. We cannot completely get rid of the context. But we should make sure we keep eliminating waste and focus on value. Remember The Third Ideal?

Favourite quotes from The Unicorn Project Book

I already shared a few quotes at the beginning of every paragraph. Here are some other passages that resonate with me a lot:

“Psychological safety slips away so easily, like when the leader micromanages, can’t say ‘I don’t know,’ or acts like a know-it-all, pompous jackass. And it’s not just leaders, it’s also how one’s peers behave.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

“In order to speak clearly, you need to be able to think clearly. And to think clearly, you usually need to be able to write it clearly.”
― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

“He said he thought it was important to think through problems clearly, and for him, writing things down enforced a logical rigor that he thought was very important for leaders to have.”

― Gene Kim, The Unicorn Project

Thanks for reading!

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