The Unicorn Project Review: Finding Flow with the Five Ideals 

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A year ago Gene Kim and I were sitting at a bar in Detroit, discussing the Gemba Walk that we were invited to by Chris O’Malley, the CEO of Compuware. That conversation quickly turned to a problem that Gene had with the current state of The Unicorn Project. The characters were there, the plot was there, but it was lacking any unifying principles that would help readers act on the lessons revealed by the book narrative. “I wrote 130,000 words, and I have no idea what the point is. It’s just a big pile of words,” Gene stated, with a hint of despair. He then pulled out a half-folded piece of paper, put it on the bar, and started jotting down ideas for the ideals that the main character was seeking on her journey. The next day that same piece of paper got a lot more scribbles, inspired by what we learned about Chris’ approach to leadership and transformation. The paper was starting to get crumpled from going in and out of Gene’s pocket all day. But on it was the birth of “The Five Ideals” that underpin The Unicorn Project. While Gene was busy being amazed by Chris’s leadership, I was amazed by the genius emerging from that piece of paper.

Last week I spoke with Carlota Perez, who is currently researching the historical context of each of the five technological revolutions summarized in Project to Product. Each of those revolutions was catalyzed by new ways of thinking. We are now in the middle of the fifth revolution, and I find it fascinating that books still seem to be as effective at disseminating new ways of thinking in this revolution as they were in past ones. When The Phoenix Project was first released, what amazed me most was the way it was causing leaders in large organizations to think differently. The Phoenix Project became a flare for those of us who realized that something was fundamentally wrong about the trajectory of enterprise IT. The book was accessible to business leaders because it adapted the themes and principles of Goldratt’s book, The Goal, whose lessons were rooted in manufacturing. But it is time for us to move beyond manufacturing analogies, and to craft a new narrative for this next phase of the Age of Software. Just as the The Goal defined the pinnacle of the Age of Oil & Mass Production, I predict that The Unicorn Project will make its mark on history by becoming the seminal story that defines the beginning of the “golden age” of software that Perez’s model predicts. 

What makes The Unicorn Project so unique is the way that it unapologetically dives into the depths of software delivery. Instead of abstract concepts and analogies, Maxine, the book’s protagonist, is thrown into the harsh reality that so many organizations are dealing with today. One transformation initiative after another is kicked off by leadership with great hope and promise of digital nirvana, yet there is no common understanding of the customer, of product value streams, and of how those value streams intersect with delivery and technology. As Maxine quickly realizes about Parts Unlimited: “We don’t have a value stream. What we’ve got is more like a stagnant value pond, full of scum, breeding malaria.” 

The technical concepts that are continually unveiled throughout The Unicorn Project will be new to some, as they take the reader into unfiltered technical depths that underpin the struggles of enterprise organizations today. This is another place where the book will be a great tool for your journey. If you are not familiar with the functional programming or data storage concepts that come up, talk to one of your developers who do. Chances are that they would be more than happy to have that discussion. And this speaks to the ultimate power and contribution of the book. While it immediately resonates with the daily toils of practitioners, The Unicorn Project provides leaders with the perspective they need to get their organizations through the Turning Point.

One of the most powerful stories in the book is Maxine filing a ticket so that she can start contributing in her new role. Over the course of days she follows the flow of that ticket through departmental silos and multiple tracking systems. In the end, following her journey through that disjointed flow is as depressing as reading one of Kafka’s characters trying to navigate the byzantine government bureaucracy in The Trial. It is particularly poignant to me as it’s one of the stories that was inspired by my own professional journey and frustrations with how enterprise software is built, and the one that caused me to create Eclipse Mylyn and start on the journey toward the Flow Framework™. Stories like this one will resonate with everyone who has felt the effect of broken management models and processes. The Unicorn Project captures volumes of the lore needed to catalyze change, empowerment and innovation.   

The rebellion that Maxine joins uncovers a quagmire of project management and proxy metrics that so often lead both management and contributors into the weeds. These stories paint a very clear picture of how business leaders need to adapt by learning value stream thinking in order to survive and thrive in the Age of Software. For example, making major staffing, outsourcing or architecture is foolhardy without measuring how those decisions impact flow on a particular value stream. 

Maxine and her rebellion use The Five Ideals to help navigate the bureaucratic obstacles that clutter software production at Parts Unlimited. What is so key about these Ideals is the premise that computational and value stream concepts cannot be divorced from the business. The change is already underway. For example, at the University of British Columbia, thousands of non-computer science undergraduate students are now taking a first-year Computational Thinking course. As such, the next generation is likely to be much better equipped for this shift.  For today’s business leaders, learning from books like The Unicorn Project and the new way of thinking it portrays is critical to navigating this organizational change. 

While Gene was constantly refactoring and rewriting his book over the past year, I have been maniacally focused on helping large organizations make the shift from project to product with the Flow Framework. The Unicorn Project provides an amazingly impactful narrative for why this shift is so critical. But even more interestingly, there is a nearly perfect correlation between my main lessons learned from the past year, and the Five Ideals that emerged from Gene’s piece of paper. This correlation goes beyond the fact that Gene and I collaborated around the Flow Metrics and the Five Ideals. What I have been studying is the deployments and data from the live value streams of very large organizations deploying the Flow Framework via Tasktop’s tools. And that data is starting to substantiate the empirical significance of the five ideals:

  1. First Ideal — Locality and Simplicity: The most common Flow Velocity bottleneck that we have observed to date has been a misalignment between software architecture and product value streams. By definition, product value streams have to be aligned to a customer. However, architectures have typically evolved around technology stacks and internal company silos. The ideal scenario is that for any feature that you want to add, you only need to change a minimal amount of code within that particular value stream. This is the journey to locality and simplicity across your software architecture and your organization.
  2. Second Ideal — Focus, Flow and Joy: At their outset, several of the largest Flow Framework deployments surfaced a common problem. Technical Debt is not tracked consistently across teams and value streams. Neither is Risk work (eg., Security). The symptom that the Flow Metrics make visible is that Flow Load (i.e., WIP) for feature demands from the business is typically much too high because a large portion of the work is not visible, which results in people and teams thrashing and getting less done as a result. That overly high Flow Load leads to stress and frustration, which reduces people’s happiness and causes even less to get done. Working backward from this by improving focus (i.e., lowering Flow Load) and removing delivery impediments (i.e., increasing the Flow Velocity of meaningful work) results in more joy and happiness on teams.
  3. Third Ideal — Improvement of Daily Work: Teams tend to know how to improve their daily work. They know where the wait states that impede them from getting value are, and how to resolve them. However, when we look at an entire product value stream, which tends to include up to ten teams as well as many organizational functions and processes, finding the current bottleneck is nearly impossible without real-time data. What measuring end-to-end Flow Efficiency has proven is that it is possible to find the most damaging wait states no matter how complex the processes or tools involved. Tasktop’s Flow Framework deployments are proving that we need data-driven continuous improvement to scale the attainment of ideal into from the team level to the entire organization.
  4. Fourth Ideal — Psychological Safety: Carmen DeArdo, Dominica DeGrandis and I were recently struggling with a particularly large and complex Flow Framework implementation. Some of the product value stream teams were eager to move forward, but others insisted that they needed to be ‘100% Agile’ before any of their work should be measured. This made no sense to us, as the point of making their work visible was to help their leadership get impediments and frustrations removed from their daily work. Dominica pointed out that without the psychological safety needed to make their work visible, the teams and their managers would continue to fear that their less-than-ideal Agile and DevOps work practices would now be visible and criticized. But that was the exact opposite of the leadership’s goals, who already knew that to achieve the fourth ideal, the cross-organizational impediments to flow needed to get measured and resolved, because the bottlenecks were not likely to be within the teams. In the end, all that was needed was to bring the teams into the conversation and to empower them with ownership of their own Flow Metrics.
  5. Fifth Ideal — Customer Focus: This ideal may seem overly obvious, but our data has shown just how far from this enterprise IT organizations are today. Decades of IT being a siloed cost center with project management as the operating model have created organizational structures and processes that are completely misaligned to delivering value. The current state is dire enough that Dean Leffingwell has called for putting in place a second operating system for our organizations. Project to Product takes a similar approach of stating that before any improvement can happen, product value streams need to be defined, implemented and measured. Whether for internal or external customers, this ideal means knowing who the customer is, defining the value stream for that customer, and aligning all delivery and architectural investment around it. Working backwards from customer value is critical, and the most urgent advice I have is to start from this ideal.

Maxine’s trials and tribulations in The Unicorn Project will resonate with nearly everyone working in enterprise IT. The level of detail with which the book tells the story of software delivery today is both exhaustive and daunting in its accuracy and realism. But it is precisely this mess that the vast majority of today’s IT practitioners are dealing with every day. Pressure to deliver from the top, without an understanding of the dynamics or constraints needed to make that happen in a timeframe that saves the business. For most technology executives reading it, The Unicorn Project will be the first end-to-end Gemba Walk. But for those who are as inspired from it as I was, it will not be the last. 

If you are interested in the project to product journey, please sign up to my newsletter and stay in touch. Visit the Project to Product to learn more about my book, as well as the IT Revolution website, where you will also find a comprehensive library of compelling books about best practice for IT organizations.

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