The Unicorn Project Book Review - The Cabal

I finished The Unicorn Project a few weeks ago, and I had some thoughts that I wanted to share with you.

In the words of the author Gene Kim

“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 common ground for technology and business leaders to leave the past behind, and co-create a better future together.” –Gene Kim, November 2019

All in all the book is a good and easy read, I finished it in a single afternoon and I found it quite familiar to my own personal experiences. I am not going to divulge any spoilers. I do think that the Phoenix Project for me was more of an eye opener, because it was really the first book that I had read that had actually put into words what I had felt and what I had gone through. The story here was pretty much what I see day in and day out at companies I have worked for, and with customers I work with.

I do want to dive a bit deeper into one item in the book.

The concept of a group of people that make a change. In the book there is a group of similar-minded people who meet in secret, who are fed up with the current on-goings in the company and want to make a change.

This completely reminded me of the TV series The Blacklist and the Cabal

The Cabal was a shadow government that existed, ran things in the background and wanted to run things in the background.

  • They met in secret (in the book they all met after hours, outside work at a bar)
  • They actively recruited like-minded people from within the current organization
  • They had no faith in the current organization and were actively looking to replace it

The Unicorn Project is essentially about a Cabal, that managed to turn things around for a failing company, just because the company was not able to do it on its own using conventional methods.

I have seen this so many times, in a number of organizations I have worked in. The company is stuck in their ways, with their practices and are not willing (or are not able) to change. The only way you can move things is by “going off the books", starting a “ghetto project", something “under the radar", and showing them that things can be done differently and that eventually becomes the catalyst for change for the entire company.

People think of a Cabal as a bad thing, but sometimes, it is the only way to create change. Either the current mindset does not embrace change, or actively discourages it, the only way is to “break the glass” and “do something crazy".

Most transformations happen this way, a small team of people, with the same vision, the same mindset, with the same distaste for the current state of affairs and the same drive to create something better. They have tried numerous times to change from within, but cannot because the system will not let them. In the words of Prudence from Cinderella, “It Simply isn't done”.

What I find sad is, only after the “Cabal” actually manages to make a difference, makes a change, and demonstrates that change is possible - you just have do things differently and not the way they have been for many years - then, and only then, do most organizations start to realize that their methods are archaic, and are a hindrance to the business. Many companies adopt this model of startups within companies (or spin-ins), because they realize that there is no other way to get things done.

I have had the privilege to have been part of a number of teams who have were the “Cabal” and brought change to companies. It doesn't always work, and sometimes it fails but I do think that when it does, it can turn a company around.

Thank you Gene for writing this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This is relevant to a lot more than DevOps and organizational culture.

This is how revolutions are made.