The Unicorn Project tells the transformation story of Parts Unlimited first described in The Phoenix Project through a different set of people and with a different focus. These characters, their story, and the focus on The Five Ideals a compelling way to learn about the principles of organizational transformation.

Where The Phoenix Project provides a prescription for applying Lean principles to create flow and feedback across an organization, The Unicorn Project teaches us how to improve our daily work and individual well-being.

The heroine of this story is Maxine, a senior engineer, who returns from vacation and is thrown under the bus and then the fire of Parts Unlimited’s launch of Project Phoenix. We learn The Five Ideals through Maxine’s experience as she transitions from her comfortable position running the stable manufacturing ERP systems to an essential leader of the quasi-sanctioned, cross-functional Rebellion team. Critically, the Rebellion builds core technical capabilities like reliable delivery pipelines and untangles enough of Parts Unlimited’s technical debt for the official Phoenix Project to succeed.

The Five Ideals

The Five Ideals, The Unicorn Project
The Five Ideals, The Unicorn Project

This story is about finding better ways to do our daily work, and I think it’s incredibly important.

I am glad Gene Kim is teaching this lesson now, because I think:

The Five Ideals are the soul that is missing from a lot of ‘digital transformations’

Stephen Kuenzli

Here’s how I understand and think about The Five Ideals:

Locality and Simplicity

Individuals and teams need to create clearly-scoped and reasonably sized components, functions, and services so that they can:

  1. understand them quickly with low stress
  2. change them confidently with support from multiple quality improvement methods
  3. decouple a service’s delivery lifecycle from the tens or hundreds of other services in the system

Locality and simplicity are essential ingredients for autonomous teams and reliable systems (cf. Making Sense of Systems and Good Decisions).

Focus, Flow, and Joy

We all need time, energy, and the focus to do our work, especially individual contributors trying to solve hard problems. When we don’t have those resources, we won’t solve the problem (no matter what the ‘reward’ or ‘penalty’), nor will we experience the joy of seeing our efforts used by a customer.

Making routine activities like performing builds, continuous integration, and application deployments ‘boring’ may not sound important, but you’ll never have enough mental resources to work on the ‘exciting’ business problem if the boring stuff is tripping you up all the time.

Improvement of Daily Work

Improving our daily work even a small amount each day at the individual and team level accumulates tremendous improvements in team efficiency and capacity over the long run, like a flywheel.

Start by improving the bits that are stealing your focus and disrupting your flow. Here’s how to reinforce that feedback loop through your sprint retrospective. Improving Daily Work is often a key practice needed to achieve Focus, Flow, and Joy sustainably.

Once your daily work is flowing smoothly, consider incorporate daily or at least weekly learning as part of your improvement program. Part 3 deals with the topic of learning new skills at the individual, team, and organizational level and I think it’s one of the best and most valuable lessons in the book.

Psychological Safety

Creating a work environment where people feel and are safe is a responsibility of organizational leadership, managers, and team members. Psychological safety is “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). Psychological safety is now recognized as critical for creating humane organizations and high productivity.

Customer Focus

Focus on who the customer is and what their needs are when building solutions for them. Literally go talk to them to get raw, unedited feedback. You will develop empathy for those people and a grounded understanding of their needs.


You can learn a lot from The Unicorn Project about the day-to-day leadership, management, and ‘manage-up’ skills to transform yourself, a team, or an organization using The Five Ideals.

If you’re new to Parts Unlimited, I suggest reading or listening to it end-to-end. If you already have the perspective of The Phoenix Project, consider reflecting upon which of ideals you could improve on the most and focus your reading and further research on those points of the story. Don’t miss Part 3.

I encourage you to learn and incorporate The Five Ideals into your team’s execution, regardless of how you do it. The Unicorn Project provides the concepts, language, and a roadmap to help you succeed.



p.s. I received a pre-release copy of The Unicorn Project with a request to review it. Done! No other compensation has been provided and neither Gene Kim nor IT Revolution staff were involved in the publication of this review.