The Unicorn Project

The Five Ideals

Locality and Simplicity

We need to design things so that we have locality in our systems and the organizations that build them. And we need simplicity in everything we do.

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.”

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.

‘It is ignorance that is the mother of all problems, and the only thing that can overcome it is learning.’

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

The opposite of the Third Ideal is someone who values process compliance and TWWADI (‘The Way We’ve Always Done It.’) It’s the huge library of rules and regulations, processes and procedures, approvals and stage gates, with new rules being added all the time to prevent the latest disaster from happening again.

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.

Blameless Post-Mortems

One example are blameless post-mortems. 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.

The goal is to enable the people closest to the problem to share what they saw, so we can make our systems safer. The only rule is that you can’t say ‘I should have done X’ or ‘If I had known about that, I would have done Y.’ Hindsight is always perfect. In crises, we never actually know what’s reallyl going on, and we need to prepare for a future where we have an equally imperfect understanding of the world.”

Customer Focus

Fifth Ideal is Customer Focus, where we 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?”

The Three Horizons

Horizon 1

Horizon 1 is your successful, cash-cow businesses, where the customer, business, and operational models are well-known and predictable. Horizon 1 thrives on process and consistency, on rules and compliance, and on bureaucracies, which create extraordinary resilience. These are the mechanisms that allow greatness to be consistently delivered over.

Horizon 2

Almost all businesses fade over time, because any profitable operation will attract competitors. The economic logic of selling reductions in transactional cost is irresistible and inevitable. Which is why Horizon 2 lines of business are so important, because they represent the future of the company. They may introduce the company’s capabilities to new customers, adjacent markets, or with different business models. These endeavors may not be profitable, but this is where we find higher-growth areas. It is from here that enterprising leaders create the next generation of Horizon 1 businesses.

Horizon 3

Horizon 2 efforts come from Horizon 3, where the focus is on velocity of learning and having a broad pool of ideas to explore. Here, the name of the game is to prototype ideas and to answer as quickly as possible the three questions of market risk, technical risk, and business model risk: Does the idea solve a real customer need? Is it technically feasible? And is there a financially feasible engine of growth? If the answer is no to any of them, it’s time to pivot or kill the idea.

Cores vs Context

Cores are the central competencies of the organization. These are things that customers are willing to pay for and what investors reward.

Context is everything else. It’s the cafeterias, shuttles between buildings, and the thousands of things companies must do to operate. They’re often mission-critical, such as HR, payroll, and email. But our customers do not pay us for the great payroll services we provide to our employees.

Wardley Map is one technique to better localize what parts of various value chains are commodities and should be outsourced, which should be purchased, and which should be kept in-house because the creat durable, competitive advantages.

Development Workflow

  • The one thing that is more important than code, is tha system that enables developers to write high-quality code quickly and safely. Freeing themselves from all the things that prevent them from solving important business problems.
  • When people can’t get their builds going consistently, disaster is usually right around the corner. Without constant feedback from a centralized build, integration and test system, they really have no idea what will happen when all their work is merged with everyone else’s.
  • Developers cannot be productive without a great build, integration and test process
  • Lack of trust and too much information flowing around is causing things to go slower and slower.
  • One should be able to create value by changing one file, one module, one service, one component, one API call, or whatever!

The Perfect Environment

  • Every developer uses a common build environment.
  • Every developer is supported by a continuous build and integration system.
  • Everyone can run their code in production-like environments.
  • Automated test suites are built to replace manual testing, liberating QA people to do higher value work.
  • Architecture is decoupled to liberate feature teams, so developers can deliver value independently.
  • All the data that teams need is put in easily consumed APIs.

Management Principles

  • Leaders have to protect their people from all the political and bureaucratic insanity, not throw them into.
  • This job is very simple: listen, do whatever you need me to do to help make you successful, and remove any obstacles in your way.
  • Long hours are a sign of something going very wrong.
  • The importance of lead times in software delivery is tantamount. Code deployment lead time, code deployment frequency, and time to resolve problems are predictive of software delivery, operational performance, and organizational performance, and they correlate with burnout, employee engagement, and so much more.
  • You can choose to build new feature or you can choose to pay down complexity debt.
  • When everyone knows what the goals are, teams will self-organize to best achieve those goals.
  • The future requires creating a dynamic, learning organization where experimentation and learning are a part of everyone’s daily work.
  • Turn Ops into a platform team and internal consultants, with the goals of providing developers the infrastructure they need, complete with a vast army of experts who are there to help, looking for ways to make developers productive.

Personal Development

  • Have a daily work diary. In it, track everything you worked on, how much time you spend on it, any interesting lessons you learned from it and a list of things to never do again.

Other Memorable Quotes

Technical debt is what you feel the next time you want to make a change.

Software is like a city, constantly undergoing change, needing renovations and repair. Being able to test and push code to production is more productive, makes for happier customers, creates accountability of code quality to the people who write it, and also makes the work more joyful and rewarding.

Innovation and learning occure at the edges not the core. Problems must be solved on the front-lines, where daily work is performed by the world’s foremost experts who confront those problems most often.

A bad system wil beat a good person every time.

“Bash is the disease you die with, but don’t die of.”

“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.”

Further Reading

Title Topic
Crossing the Chasm In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey A. Moore shows that in the Technology Adoption Life Cycle - which begins with innovators and moves to early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards - there is a vast chasm between the early adopters and the early majority.
Wardley Map A Wardley map is a map of the structure of a business or service, mapping the components needed to serve the customer or user.