In 1984 Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox innovated the world of business books by writing a bestseller implementation guide to Lean as a novel. Writing a business book as a novel had not yet been done successfully. Since the success of ‘The Goal’, there have been two successful attempts to recreate Business Novels for IT and Software Development. Gene Kim wrote ‘The Phoenix Project’ in 2013 and the companion book 'The Unicorn Project' in 2019 as a homage to ‘The Goal’ and as a way to use business fiction to transform to using DevOps. These books try to be a novel and a "best practices" business book while showing some key issues and problems with large corporations.
Eliyahu M. Goldratt: The Goal (1984)
The main character is Alex Rogo, who manages a production plant where everything is always behind schedule. The future of the plan looks dire. Bill Peach, a company executive, tells Alex he has three months to turn operations around at his plant. His distant acquaintance, Jonah (a physicist), whom many belief represents Goldratt himself, helps him save the plant using the Theory of Constraints.
In the book, Jonah teaches Alex Rogo by using the Socratic method.
Throughout the book, whenever a meeting or telephone call dialogue happens with Jonah, he poses a question to Alex Rogo or a member of his crew, which in turn causes them to talk amongst themselves to come up with a solution to their problem. Written in a fast-paced thriller style, The Goal is a gripping novel transforming management thinking throughout the Western world. Buy it here.
Gene Kim: The Phoenix Project (2013)
In ‘The Phoenix Project’, author Gene Kim describes the challenge for a company called Parts Unlimited. Kim wrote ‘The Phoenix Project’ as an hommage to “The Goal” and as a business novel to help the implementation of DevOps. The main character of the book is Bill. Bill is an IT manager at Parts Unlimited. It's Tuesday morning, and Bill gets a call from the CEO on his drive into the office.
The company's new IT initiative, code-named “Phoenix Project”, is critical to the future of Parts Unlimited, but the project is massively over budget and late. The CEO wants Bill to report directly to him and fix the mess in ninety days, or else Bill's entire department will move overseas and outsourced.
With the help of a prospective board member and his mysterious philosophy of The Three Ways, Bill starts to see that IT work has more in common with manufacturing plant work than he ever imagined. With the clock ticking, Bill must organise workflow, streamline interdepartmental communications, and effectively serve the other business functions at Parts Unlimited.
In a fast-paced and entertaining style, three luminaries of the DevOps movement deliver a story that anyone who works in IT will recognise. Readers will learn how to improve their own IT organisations; they'll never view IT the same way again. You can buy "The Phoenix Project" here.
Gene Kim: The Unicorn Project (2019)
After the success of "The Phoenix Project", there needed to be a sequel. So Kim got to work and updated the environment to focus more on CI/CD and more Developer centred concepts (The Phoenix Project being more service management centred). The Unicorn project is not a sequel but a companion book; it describes another project at the same company in the same timeline. A timeline is included in this book, so you can see what happens when in both books.
The Phoenix Project and The Unicorn Project suffer from something I call “The ER condition”. ER was a popular TV series in the nineties and 2000s centred around an Emergency Room in a Chicago hospital. The series has a realistic depiction of an ER except for the pace.
There are so many patients brought into the ward in a single episode, a new patient load you'd typically see in 1 week. This also holds true for the unicorn project: the first half of this book should come with a PTSD trigger warning for anyone that has worked in corporate dev environments.
In The Unicorn Project, we follow Maxine: a senior lead developer and architect, exiled to The Phoenix Project, to the horror of her friends and colleagues, as punishment for contributing to a payroll outage. She tries to survive in what feels like a heartless and uncaring bureaucracy and to work within a system where no one can get anything done without endless committees, paperwork, and approvals. Maxine becomes the driving force inside parts unlimited behind the transformation towards an improved software development organisation using “the five ideals" and the leader of the "red shirts" rebellion. You can buy The Unicorn Project here.
Business novels can be an excellent method to implement business transformations like Lean or DevOps. But, not everybody agrees on this specific method: you will notice the contrarians blasting the books for being nothing more than 'fan fiction' or 'kiss asses' raving about the latest fad.
I think this blasting is unnecessary and beside the point: business novels have never aspired to be a 'great American novel' style of high literature. I'm surprised people had this expectation. However, business novels can serve a good purpose in transforming businesses as they make the (sometimes) dry and academic literature on transformation and process improvement easy to read, understand and remember.
Depending on your transformation destination, be sure to pick up one of the three business novels.