This article is my impression of books: The Goal and Unicorn Project.
In 2017 when I was doing my 52 books challenge I have read an interesting book: Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t where the author spent a lot of time explaining how stories are important and how to build them. Among other great insight, there was a page that is particularly dear to me: a guide on how to treat non-story as a story. I won’t lie that page inspired me a lot. When I have trouble with writing an article, I am always going back to that page looking for new inspiration.
Why I am talking about stories?
Because Doctor Goldratt wanted "The Goal" to be an example of how to use stories as a teaching tool. I can’t say how successful he was in this aspect, but we can say he was at least partly successful. The Phoenix Project and The Unicorn Project exist in current form thanks to his project. Today we will look at both books. I will take you with me on a ride where I hope to find out why The Goal worked for me, and the Unicorn Project didn’t.
According to forward, Doctor Goldratt had few things in mind while writing The Goal:
- Introduction to a theory of constraints
- Showing that stories are a powerful teaching tool, even in business.
- Explaining how everybody can experiment and be a scientist. At first glance, those "goals" may seem distant, but in reality, they are connected. ###Theory of Constraints Introduction Theory of Constraint is the main reason for the book. The author explains that a system is as good as its weakest link and in reality those weak links are putting pace on the system, and by understanding those bottleneck and making sure they work as efficiently as possible is the best way to improve productivity. My explanation here is a huge generalisation, so if you are interested in the topic, I recommend checking the wiki or buying this book. Because the book is doing a great way in explaining its ideas are showing how and why they work. Thanks to it being a journey that the heroes went on, we can observe them each step of the process of how they were coming to their conclusions. Such an approach was possible thanks to the second and third "goal" of Goldratt.
Story as a teaching tool.
The story was the vessel used for transferring the knowledge; we had time to build our sympathy to the main hero, and we have seen the tremendous challenge before him, and we got invested into his overcoming of the problem. At least that is the theory; your mileage may vary.
That doesn’t mean The Goal was perfect for me. For example, there was too much drama in the personal life of the main hero for my taste. I get why those parts are there. Dr, Goldratt wanted to show how the factory and it a poor state was not only affecting their future but also to show it was destroying their life here and now. But the cynic in me is wondering if Goldratt didn’t go a little overboard here to the realm of TV Spot AKA "Use our toothbrush and your partner will love you, and the boss will give you a rise". But the family drama mostly is an independent side story in a style of" b-plot", so if you want you can skip it (except "the scouting trip" – that part is essential).
Where the story shines and works best is when we
see how heroes make step-by-step progress resolving one issue to see another rise – sometimes because of their actions. That was an important message – there is no ultimate solution if you fix one thing it will affect the whole system so that new issues may arise somewhere else.
I think what helped here is Author talent for bringing even the most complicated problem to the most straightforward version helping us to understand them.
The attempts to observe, understand and explain situation also works to support Goldratt 3rd goal – making science more accessible. Heroes learn fast they need to observe, try to understand and then experiment to check if their understanding was good. But Goldratt also encourages us to figure it out on our own. That is why before he shows us a solution, explains all aspects of the problems. The author believes that science is for everyone, and he wants to encourage us to experiment because, with experimentation, it will be impossible for us to use his Theory of Constraints. ##The goal of every company ever There is one essential statement in this book something that is obvious, but it need also to state in the open: "The goal of every company is to make money!" and I knew it but having it stated so clearly, made me look back on some of my decisions. For example: How I was leading community in my company – but this is a discussion for a different day.
Let me tell you this: The Goal is not an audiobook but a proper radio-play!
- Every character has its voice actor and a massive array of sound effects for each location, making it a joy to listen. I found only two small issues with it:
- Few parts are much lower quality. I am not 100% sure but it seems they were recorded and added much later.
- Doctor Jonah draws some mathematical formulas. I had difficulty to visualise them in my head from just listening.
For whom is this book.
Summing up I would say for anyone in the tech world – even if the theory of constraint does not interest you. This book is also a tool for learning about how "to do science". As I mentioned before, doctor Goldratt promoted the idea to use stories as the teaching tool, and both the phoenix project and Unicorn project follow his example. But while Phoenix Project did a good job, I am not so sure about the Unicorn.
The Unicorn Project
Using movie terminology Unicorn project is Spin-off of the Phoenix Project, action happens roughly at the same, difference is perspective while Phoenix is of manager dealing with teams and department. Unicorn is showing the story from grunts point of view. Warning This part will be a little more in-depth than usually which means I will spoil some story points from both Phoenix and Unicorn books. Warning II Usually I am trying to be objective in my reviews and limit my personal feeling and emotions to the minimum. But Most of my problems with this book comes from, emotions so that why I am leaving them here.
The book starts with Our Main Heroine – Maxine became a scapegoat for a production issue she "caused". What was the problem and why she is a scapegoat? – You will find it in the Phoenix Project.
Maxine boss as punishment sends her to The Phoenix Project, which is the company most significant and most important. It is a considerable investment, on which company future is riding but in reality, is not in working condition and nowhere close to launch. Our heroine makes her name by trying to build it on her machine while doing it "The Rebellion" – an unofficial cross-skilled team that wants to save the day take notice of her. From there, they go on many adventures trying to save the Phoenix project and later change the whole company with their new child – the unicorn project.
What is this book about in general
Before its release, I read that it was an introduction to "The five ideals":
- The First Ideal is Locality and Simplicity
- The Second Ideal is Focus, Flow, and Joy
- The Third Ideal is an Improvement of Daily Work
- The Fourth Ideal is Psychological Safety
- The Fifth Ideal is Customer Focus
I have also found this quote from the author:
My goal in writing The Unicorn Project was to explore and reveal the necessary but invisible structures required to make developers (and all engineers) productive and reveal the devastating effects of technical debt and complexity. I hope this book can create a common ground for technology and business leaders to leave the past behind and co-create a better future together.
- Gene Kim, November 2019
The Story and its flaws
The book starts with a foreword where reader/listener will learn, that reading or rereading of the phoenix project is unnecessary to enjoy the book. That is useful information but why it is here? it should be plastered on book descriptions in ebook stores! My problem is with another part of the message. The author is warning us we will need to rely heavily on our suspension of disbelief. I hope you see the problem if you need openly ask readers to do that, you failed as a storyteller! I even wonder if this request had an opposite effect on me.
But through is you will need it a lot to name a few examples:
- A character from the Phoenix show up a lot, and they are active here
- All the time, I was asking myself: How they have time to have taken part in both events?
- Eric, the mentor from Phoenix, is I think the most aggressive example, by having a bar and working there as a bartender.
- Sara, a main antagonist of the book, here is more cartoonishly evil – in Phoenix, I could believe that she thinks she knows best how to save a company. But here her portrait showed her as an utterly rotten person.
Main Heroine being to perfect is also worth pointing out:
- She does a lot of open-source projects
- She helps with teaching kids programming
- She is very skilled in a lot of the technologies
- She has a great family
- Somehow dispute here over qualification she was working at the company
- She never fails! As long as it is in her area of expertise, she has a solution always ready.
- This is also true for the rest of the rebellion.
My other issue is how the books contradict each other here we have a story of everyday man and women saving the day, and there we had stories of managements saving the day. I think this is of a different point of view, but still, it was confusing. Ok, I spent so much on the suspension of disbelief that To make this review readable I will only present the other issues I won’t go into details:
- Too much time is wasted on the appreciation of everybody – seriously, I could turn the amount of admiration that goes into this book into a drinking game.
- The story doesn’t have the vibe like exploration and discovery, most time Characters know what to do, and they go straight to a goal with a little of the problems. There is no mystery to solve no figuring it out for yourself.
- lots of the problem heroes face are consequences of someone Evil trying to scraw with them.
Failure of Story model
The story is a great teaching tool, but it is hard to use a tool, You have not only be competent in an area you want to teach, but you have to be a skilled storyteller. As long as you are competent in your area, writing regular "Handbook" will give the reader a source of information that is easily searchable. But in the case of the stories, it is not as easy. A reader has to interpret the story and understand it to distil information. Usually, it works well because our mind works on stories. The problem started when we got a bad story that our mind refuses to distil because, for example, it finds it unrealistic.
Sure Dragons, magic, talking cats are ok! But Employe being overworked and yet have time to drink? That is ridiculous!
It happened to me with Unicorn Project I couldn’t get into the story which stopped me from absorbing its lessons, and that why this review is so subjective. It may happen to you or may not – cause we all read stories differently and have our thresholds in different places.
What I liked
As much as I may rant that Maxine was too perfect, I appreciate the fact we didn’t have to follow her private life too much in this book. Even with all my problems with going past the story, three things grabbed my attention:
- The best engineers should work not on the business features but the infrastructure,systems used by all the teams. – The Third Ideal AKA Improvement of Daily Work states that if an engineer has a choice of doing some feature work or improving the working process for his team/organisation, he should do the later.
- Core vs Context – where the Core brings company many, and the Context is all the other things the company has to do to make money.
I like the touch of selecting female lector for a book where the main heroine is women. She put much more interpretation into the text. I could feel in her voice when our heroine was frustrated, happy or in a rush. My only issue was her voice was a little too quiet – with setting my headphones on max I wasn’t able to hear her while walking the busy road.
As much as I enjoyed Phoenix Project, I Can’t say the same for Unicorn. The books didn’t work for me as a story, there were parts straight out annoying, and there were other parts that I completely dozed off sometimes realising I have lost even 15 minutes that I had to re-listen. Looking back, I think the author made a wrong move with making this story based on the same company – if that would be a new story. I think it would work much better. Overall If you haven’t read Phonix Project, this book will be enjoyable for you, but I would still recommend getting the Phoenix Project instead.