I read The Unicorn Project and Always Day One back-to-back, two books on technical organizations. This wasn’t by design, though it’s not super surprising - I’m generally interested in organizational processes, and have had a renewed interest in the topic during the pandemic when many companies are completely reimagining how they work and thrive. It was a bit of a happy coincidence as well, because the themes in the book coincided with some shifts in my work at my day job.
Even though both books have roughly the same area of focus, they differed greatly in approach and experience.
The Unicorn Project is a fictional narrative about a struggling automotive parts company that is being slowly pulled toward a death by aging, in which the company is not able to compete with competitors who move faster and more effeciently to deliver products and capture market segments. The company initiated a sliver-bullet project years ago with the moniker “The Phoneix Project”, but the current state of the project may be farther from its goal than when it was just an idea: the project continues to stall due to poor technical decisions, management, and leadership, and attempts to make changes or deploy across the project result in mass outages, lost revenue, and loss of costumer trust. The story of the book is the hero’s journey of a band of rebellious developers, QAs and DevOps people who build internal tools to provide quick feedback through tests & CI/CD, isolate dependencies, encourage decentralization between teams, and improve overall developer, QA and DevOps effeciency. It is a fictional story teaching real-world ideas.
Always Day One is a non-fiction business narrative focusing on 5 major tech companies (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google) that have achieved much success in their business silos. It almost has an investigative quality to it, as the book aims to determine the quality of each company that uniquely makes it successful. For Facebook, it’s a culture of feedback that spurns the normal communication hierarchy. For Google, it’s a culture of collaroration across teams and products, embodied by the hugely popular suite of collaboration tools such as Google Docs, Google Slides, etc. Each company spotlight reduced the unique advantage down to a single attribute of the culture and illuminated the The book was authored by a tech journalist, and while the focus was on tech companies, the actually tech hands-on-keyboards processes aren’t really discussed. This was an important distinction from The Unicorn Project, as the successful pieces of culture that situated the company in a unique position to succeed was not limited to the technical part of the organization.
While both books sniffed around the same material, the most salient overlap between the two was the focus on a culture of continual invention. A business, even a highly successful one, should not rest on its laurels with its flagship product or service. The message was clear, though the two books articulated it in their own way: there is always room for improvement and future devleopment, and that those that do not choose to invest in the future are choosing to become irrelevant. Investment in the future is a flywheel that will keep businesses many steps ahead of competitors that don’t. It is a company-wide initiative that should be a part of every decision. Continual invention needs to be woven into the fabric of company culture and accepted as a main tenet of each business.
Always Day One used Amazon as its example of a company that has succeeded because of its drive to constantly invent and reinvent its own products, people, and process. Nothing is safe from being repurposed and reimagined. Amazon has reinvested in itself, focusing on removing effeciencies and reducing the amount of non-creative work at any level of the company. Anything that can be automated should attempt to be automated, even in part.
By automating repeatable, predicatable parts of the jobs, Amazon employees were freed to focus on the parts of their job where they could deliver on a competitive advantage. Amazon reduced the amount of time needed to execute on some tasks, accelerating the speed at which it can deliver new products or enter new businesses. Through a process of contunual invention, Amazon has become a massive, unstoppable force in multiple product categories - just this week they were rumored to enter a new market by purchasing AMC theaters and possibly obtaining a portfolio of physical theather locations.
For The Unicorn Project, this came in the form of dividing company initiatives into three separate steps, each associated with a time period.
- Horizon 1 initiatives are the company’s bread-and-butter, the revenue-generating product or service that the company is known for. This is the type of thing that would be described as the type of business you were in if you asked a random person on the street (that is, if your company is well-known enough).
- Horizon 2 is for promising parts of the business with attractive growth rates. These are lines of business that may grow to be the future of the company. They have processes that may not be fully fleshed out, but there is a verified target audience and may evolve into Horizon 1 businesses as they mature.
- Horizon 3 is home to long-shot plays, and innovative, new ideas to validate. Horizon 3 should be a bubbling culdron of new ideas to prototype quickly and experiment with, continuing with successful cases and quickly reevaluating and sometimes abandoning those that don’t perform well. This is the spark of innovation for the company, with the intent that these lines of business can be promoted to Horizon 2.
The culture of the company should support all three horizons simulatenously, allowing all parts of the company to submit their own ideas to Horizon 3 to improve upon or invent new products and processes across the entire company. Companies typically focus on Horizon 1 businesses because they are the cash cow and revenue generators. Obviously, Horizon 1 businesses are needed for a company to survive, but they often have an expiration date that is closer than it appears. Placing Horizon 2 and 3 on par with Horizon 1 businesses fosters a company culture that is not afraid to improve, invent, and innovate. Ultimately, improvement and invention is what a company needs not only to thrive, but to survive over time as trends and technology changes.
I was pleasantly surprised about how aligned the themes of these two books were, even though their individual approaches were nearly orthogonal. One focused on improving the gritty, technical details of individual contributors in a technology organization, which bubbled up to middle managers and eventually the leaders of the organization, flipping the way the company viewed its own focuses and businesses. The other took a case study approach, divining the unique properties of successful technology companies, often coming back to simple yet powerful principles that when are tough to implement, but when applied correctly become a force multiplier for any business. The most obvious overlap was the focus on invention and preparing for the future. Businesses cannot disregard the future for the present; to survive and succeed in the long-term, companies must continually improve and invent both external products and internal processes.