Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


[Review] The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

[Updated January 15, 2013 to include link to longer excerpt - 170 pages, using the link at the end of this post.]

Last week, I read the newly released book, "The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win."  This book was written by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford, who also wrote "The Visible Ops Handbook" (I was a contributing researcher on that project). 

The Phoenix Project is a business novel that takes you through a few months in the life of Bill Palmer, an IT manager at a large auto parts manufacturing company. The book begins with Bill's boss (head of IT Ops) and his boss's boss (the CIO) getting fired.  Bill gets a battlefield promotion and works directly with the CEO, who expects him to solve some serious IT problems (that threaten to destroy the business) in 90 days.

"The Goal" for Information Technology

Don't let the fact that this is a novel fool you - this is not fluff, and there is plenty of rich learning in this book.  If you've ever read "The Goal," by Dr. Eliyahu Goldrattl, you'll know that it was a business novel designed to make it easier to understand his "Theory of Constraints" (TOC) model and it succeeded in making a lot of very complex concepts approachable for business seeking to improve the performance of their manufacturing and supply chain operations.

The Phoenix Project is a lot like The Goal, in that it wraps a compelling story around such complex topics of DevOps, ITIL, Agile development processes, risk management, top-down risk-based audit scoping, and a lot more.

A captivating read, with realistic scenarios

As the story unfolds, you not only learn about these topics, you also see them in situations that you'll recognize.  I ran across quite a few scenarios that felt familiar both from my day job, as well as the work I do with enterprises and executives around the world.  In other words, the situations in the book are very real business scenarios.

The characters remind me of people I know, as well.  I had mental images of the characters as people I've worked with and you probably will, too.  After all, the stereotypical IT security curmudgeon is not just a story - and you may be surprised what happens to the head of Information Security in this book.

I read this book on the plane the other day and found myself irritated when I had to shut down my e-reader for landing because I couldn't wait to see what happened next!  I can almost see this becoming a movie at some point (though the idea of an IT-oriented feature film is probably a bit of a stretch - maybe there could be a car chase or an alien invasion or something).

Learn to improve your business

As entertaining as this book is, there is a lot to be learned from it.  In today's business world, IT is involved in almost everything we do. One of the challenges faced by many IT professionals is that the non-technical parts of the business often don't understand the linkages between IT activities and business success.  The result is IT getting the short end of the stick and starving for resources.

IT contributes to these problems, as well, because they spend a lot of time on activities that aren't "make or break" for the business so they have a hard time demonstrating value created with the budget they've been given.

The Phoenix Project hits this problem straight on and presents ways to get everyone on the same page about what's really important to the business, provides tools for IT professionals to focus on delivering meaningful results for the business, and tying all of it directly to how the business makes money by satisfying customer needs.

A must-read for IT professionals and business people alike

The principles shared in this book are critical for any business that relies on IT for its livelihood.  I recommend The Phoenix Project to every business person and IT professional that wants to increase their business performance.

If you want to see what it's like, click this link to read a brief excerpt from The Phoenix Project.

Artistic? Want $500?

If you want to pick up $500 fast, just impress Lisa Haneberg with your artistic skillz. She's got a Web 1.0 thing going on with the current cover of her book High Impact Middle Management (a book I love, by the way), and she want to bring it up to at least Web 2.0.

You can find out more on Lisa's cover art competition here - this is your chance to make the big time!

By the way, I always thought this book should be called "Badass Middle Management" because it has some fantastic advice for anyone who wants to be more effective as a manager, particularly those of us "in the middle" of an organization. Another reason to love this book is that it takes you through an abbreviated version of one of my favorite topics: Goldratt's Theory of Constraints.

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What's Your Bottleneck?

Last night, I sat down to skim the latest book I received, "The Flip Side," by Flip Flippen. Normally, I flip through a new book (no pun intended), put the book at the end of my "To Read" stack and read it when it's that book's turn. Not with this one - I ended up reading the whole thing then, and there."The Flip Side," could very well change your life.

In case you haven't heard of Flip Flippen (you'll learn his real first name in the book, by the way - and you'll understand why he goes by Flip), he is actually a highly regarded success coach for some notable athletes and high profile executives. He uses this book to share what he's learned through years of helping others become more successful.

What's holding you back?

The subtitle of the book is "Break Free of the Behaviors That Hold You Back," and it very well could help you with that. One of the first things that really sucked me in was the book's focus on trying to help you identify and remove "Personal Constraints" that prevent you from achieving maximum success. Flippen actually refers to Goldratt's Theory of Constraints (TOC), which I've written about in the past (see "Related links" at the end of this post for links).

In Goldratt's TOC, there is always one, primary constraint that limits the effectiveness of the entire system, and you must find a way to optimize or alleviate the constraint if you ever want to maximize the results you can achieve. Flippen embraces this with the premise that you may have many strengths and many weaknesses, but there is typically one, primary Personal Constraint that is limiting your success.

In the book, you'll learn about the"Five Laws of Personal Constraints, and discover the "Ten Killer Constraints" he's isolated through years of coaching. There is one chapter on each of the ten constraints and, in each chapter, you'll have the opportunity to do a quick assessment of whether the constraint is a big issue for you personally. You answer a few questions and use your scores to guide you to your top Personal Constraints. I say "guide" because your top-scoring constraint may not actually be your biggest inhibitor (for me, I believe my #2 is actually my biggest Achilles' heel). You can even check out an excerpt to get a feel for the book.

Be sure to read up on all the constraints - there is also a section in each chapter on how to deal with others in your organization who display these constraints, even if you don't have them yourself.

There is only one constraint

Another concept Flip embraces in the book is one that is central to TOC: at any point in time, there is only one constraint, and you must focus on fixing that constraint or you'll fail. Flippen uses a golf story to illustrate this:

When he took up golf, Flippen signed on with a golf instructor. During the first session, the guy spouted a laundry list of problems with Flip's golf swing, posture, stance, etc. It was overwhelming and he never went back.

Flip then signed up with a different golf instructor. During the first session, the second guy told him exactly one thing to work on, and said, "That's all you need for now. Work on that, and we'll talk when you get that down." Flip understood, could focus, and developed that one skill. After that, the instructor focused him on another (single) new thing. And so on...

This hit home with me, just as it did for Flip. I am often frustrated because I try to attack too many problems at once (or develop too many habits, or sign up for too many things....) when, in fact, I would probably be much more successful (and happier) if I just picked on thing to improve and worked on it until I got it down. Very powerful stuff - and it's ultimately up to you.

Plan to succeed

Awareness is only the first step - now you need to do something about it. After you identify your top Personal Constraint, The Flip Side helps you develop a personal action plan (called a TrAction plan - complete with a downloadable template on the book's companion site) to help you conquer your constraint. I'm just starting on this process now, and the guidance in the book is spot on.

Still not convinced? Then you must read Chapter 16 -that's Flip's personal story, and it really drives the whole book home in a way I can't even describe. "The Flip Side," could very well change your life.

Related items:

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Resources for learning the Theory of Constraints (TOC) Thinking Processes

OK, so I'm a geek. Let's just start there.

As a fan of Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt's Theory of Constraints (TOC) I have been surprised at how powerful its underlying concepts can be. Unlike many "process improvement" programs, Goldratt's TOC is a system improvement approach. The simple concept at its heart is that any system has only one constraint (aka "the weakest link" or "bottleneck") at any given time.

Furthermore, his theory says that any work that doesn't maximize the effectiveness of the constraint is wasted. In other words, work that doesn't allow the constraint to perform at its optimal capacity doesn't increase the throughput of the system, so your effort would likely be better spent elsewhere.

Another key component of TOC is that it is a system view and it preaches that you should focus on the throughput of the system as a whole, not on local optima.  In other words, the system should maximize the throughput of the bottleneck resource even if that means that other resources sit idle.  On the surface, that may seem counter-intuitive, but that's just because our intuition has been fed by a cost-accounting philosophy rather than a throughput-accounting philosophy.

The Roots of TOC

TOC first became known as a Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) approach that provided immense improvements in the effectiveness of manufacturing businesses. While manufacturing is the first place TOC gained its glory, the principles of TOC can be applied to virtually any system, in any business.

Goldratt himself is a phycisist, so it's no surprise that TOC is based on a small set of very simple "rules" with very complex implications and interactions. This paradox of complex simplicity makes it simultaneously easy to understand but difficult to master the precepts of TOC.

I'm a fairly conceptual thinker, so I have found it easy to apply theories of TOC at a high level, but I've found it difficult to really master the nuances of the "Thinking Processes" of TOC and execute on the technical aspects of TOC. While the processes are used heavily in all of Goldratt's books and I've read most of them, the books are presented in the style of novels. As a result, there are not a lot of tutorial-level details to help you learn the Thinking Processes on your own. [An introduction to TOC and the thinking processes is available in a free PDF from]

Resource 1: A step-by-step tutuorial on the TOC Thinking Process

At last, I have found a book (looks like a textbook, in fact), Goldratt's Theory of Constraint's by H. William Dettmer, that takes you through the end-to-end process of using the Thinking Processes to create such TOC topics as:

  • Creating, debugging, and diagnosing Current Reality Trees

  • Creating and using Conflict Resolution Diagrams ("evaporating clouds")

  • Developing Prerequisite Trees to systematically deal with obstacles

  • Building and using Transition Trees

In this book, Dettmer takes you through the mechanics (graphical conventions, step-by-step processes for using and applying the Thinking Processes), but also takes you a step further. There is considerable material on how to use these processes and diagrams to communicate with others, particularly stakeholders from which you need buy-in.

if you are new to Goldratt's Theory of Constraints, Dettmer starts the book with a very clear overview of what TOC is all about, even going so far as to cover how to apply TOC in non-profit organizations, and provide additional application notes to enable you to apply it in different environments.

Resource 2: Learning from Goldratt himself - now it's within your grasp

Last week, I took delivery of "Beyond The Goal: Eliyahu Goldratt Speaks on the Theory of Constraints" which is an 8-CD set containing the audio of a very comprehensive lecture by Dr. Goldratt. He takes us through the development of his Theory of Constraints by weaving a fascinating tapestry of stories to illustrate the concepts. Thankfully, for those of us who tend to be a bit more visual, CD number 8 also has all of the PowerPoint slides he uses during his lecture. I printed them out and it's been very helpful to have them handy as I listen to him speak.

One word of caution on this set - while TOC can ostensibly be applied to any system, the focus of this lecture is very MRP- / ERP-centric. That said, Godratt provides a lot of non-manufacturing examples, such as hospitals, fire departments, etc. and even applies TOC concepts to the Sales process.

If you are an abstract thinker, it is easy to listen to this and do the concept "mapping" in your head so you can apply this to other applications outside the MRP/ERP world. If you are a literal thinker, this one may be a frustrating listen.

But speaking as a geek, I love it.

Note that there is an interesting discussion on TOC and its application to education going on at the Never Work Alone blog.  Fascinating stuff - go check it out.

There is also the "unplugged" version on the Never Work Alone Google group.

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Sharing Chapter 11 - with you!

Don't say I never gave you anything. A few posts back, I mentioned that "Critical Chain" is my recommended starting point for people interested in Goldratts' Theory of Constraints (TOC) process.

Good news - you can read the best chapter of the book, (Chapter 11) online! Check it out at this link on Goldratt's site.

Then when you're hooked, order the book and immerse yourself in TOC.

Thanks to my friend Howard Pierpont for sending me the link! (I faxed Howard a copy of the chapter a few weeks ago, and accidentally left out 2 pages in the middle. He was watching Kojak and immediately sent me an email accusing me of playing mean tricks. One day I hope to make up for spoiling his time with Telly Savallas. It did get him to go searching for this online - couldn't have planned it better.)

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