Ideas and Concepts

I have come across a number of ideas and core concepts that have influenced my thinking. They cover areas of building Software, designing teams and organizations, decision-making, and mental models. On this page I’m keeping a reference to them and will link to background material. My idea is to keep references to the in my blog posts.

Table of Contents

The Three Ways Link to heading

The three ways are a concept or idea introduced in The Phoenix Project, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford. In this novel, they describe a hypothetical company, a car parts shop that is in the process of digitalization and establishing itself as an e-commerce store. Through the story the main character learns and describes different aspects of managing teams and projects. The influences are obvious: the Toyota Production System, Lean Processes, the Theory of Constraints. And the novel itself was heavily influenced by Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal and the Theory of Constraints.

Fast Flow Link to heading

“The First Way helps us understand how to create fast flow of work as it moves from Development into IT Operations, because that’s what’s between the business and the customer.

The Phoenix Project

The idea is simple and yet powerful: whatever gets in the way of successful completion of a project is a problem. This can mean a lot of different things in different contexts, but the goal is to ensure a fast delivery of features and changes.

Think of it like the flow of water through rivers. It can be about the flow of information through the organization, especially about project updates. The flow of a team working on code together. The flow of data through the technical organization.

Feedback Loops Link to heading

The Second Way shows us how to shorten and amplify feedback loops, so we can fix quality at the source and avoid rework.

The Phoenix Project

Essential to any type of learning or improvement are feedback loops. The way a feedback loop works, is a crucial integration part of how the system can improve over time. This can be a social system like a team, but also a technical system.

Learning Culture Link to heading

And the Third Way shows us how to create a culture that simultaneously fosters experimentation, learning from failure, and understanding that repetition and practice are the prerequisites to mastery.”

The Phoenix Project

A fundamental attribute of a successful organization is adaptability, which is not possible without the ability to learn. But learning requires a lot of effort and attention to detail. Especially on how the organization is equipped to deal with failure.

The Five Ideals Link to heading

In the The Unicorn Project, a follow-up book to the The Phoenix Project, Gene Kim introduces the five ideals. The scene is the same as the predecessor, but with a focus on the engineering part instead of management. They are a set of principles that help build successful teams and organizations.

Locality and Simplicity Link to heading

We need to design things so that we have locality in our systems and the organizations that build them.

The Unicorn Project

This sounds so simple, but in practice I think it is difficult to implement and adapt this over time. Organizations grow, strategies adapt, people come and go. This all requires constant change and evaluation: “can we still take decisions locally?” Over time I’ve seen organizations adapt to the changing business demands, but the technical systems do not evolve along with it. Inevitably this leads to a situation where the organization does not reflect the technical landscape anymore. Shortcuts will be taken, systems will be implemented multiple times.

Focus, Flow, and Joy Link to heading

“The Second Ideal is Focus, Flow, and Joy. It’s all about how our daily work feels.

The Unicorn Project

People do not like multitasking. And if they do, they will eventually end up burning out. Focus is about this: focus on one thing at a time. When in flow, the tasks and especially their fulfillment can bring joy, a sense of achievement. People are engaged.

Engineers are familiar with the flow, when you get in the zone and this is the psychological aspect of flow:

In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.


How to get into flow? Remove all distractions, turn off notifications, only check mails in the evening. Being in the flow is the most extreme form of focus. And this is what it is really about: focus.

Improvement of Daily Work Link to heading

The Third Ideal is Improvement of Daily Work. Reflect upon what the Toyota Andon cord teaches us about how we must elevate improvement of daily work over daily work itself.

The Unicorn Project

The Toyota Production System is one of the early examples of a social system optimizing for improvement. The Andon cord resembles this idea: anyone working in the production line can pull the cord when they notice something is not working. This does trigger curiosity and everyone sees this as a welcomed opportunity to learn about something and improve the overall system.

This has obvious connections to:

Psychological Safety Link to heading

The Fourth Ideal is Psychological Safety, where we make it safe to talk about problems, because solving problems requires prevention, which requires honesty, and honesty requires the absence of fear. In manufacturing, psychological safety is just as important as physical safety.

The Unicorn Project

I wrote On Psychological Safety before where I try to highlight how easy it is to destroy and how difficult it is to keep. If people do not feel safe to speak up, they will not pull the Andon cord and not tell you about the great improvement they would like to make. There is another great quote by Russell Ackoff (of course):

If you want your subordinates to be stupid, they’ll be stupid, because they don’t want to disappoint you.

Customer Focus Link to heading

And finally, the Fifth Ideal is Customer Focus, where we ruthlessly question whether something actually matters to our customers, as in, are they willing to pay us for it or is it only of value to our functional silo?”

The Unicorn Project

Amazon is famous for being “customer obsessed”. But I think this goes even broader. Every team has a customer, whether they are aware of it or not. For example the platform team in your company has a lot of other teams as their customer. Often times they are not aware of this and instead implement cool technical solutions – that their customer might not even need right now.

Another great transition to:

Team Topologies Link to heading

The book Team Topologies by Matthew Skeleton and Manuel Pairs quickly became a must-read in my management and principal engineering circle. It introduces a number of great mental models for teams and their expected behavior.

Four Fundamental Team Topologies Link to heading

They mention four types of teams: stream-aligned (think end-to-end) teams that can produce features without dependencies; enabling teams that try to understand the needs of a stream aligned team and help them succeed; complicated subsystems solve technically hard problems for the stream aligned teams (Search for example); platform teams that 10x the stream aligned teams by treating the platform as a product.

Cognitive Load Link to heading

This almost touches the aspects of building organizations. The insight is that good team boundaries reduce cognitive load. In the example of a stream aligned team and a platform team, the goal of the platform team is to reduce their cognitive load.

Skelton and Pais identify three types of cognitive load: intrinsic relates to the fundamental aspects of the problem space, for example being able to code in Java. Extraneous relates to the environment in which work is done. For example the complexity of CI/CD pipelines and the ability for a team to deploy often. And finally, germane relates to the actual value that is created.

Organizations must work towards minimizing intrinsic load, for example through training and pair programming, and extraneous load for example through automation. This means people on the team have enough cognitive capacity to work on the actual tasks that generate value.

Theory of Constraints Link to heading

Eliyahu Goldratt introduces the theory of constraints in The Goal. In this novel the protagonist has to turn around the output of a factory within a short amount of time.

The basic idea is that work is performed at certain work places. Some of those are more resource constraint than others. The theory dictates, that any improvement not done at the bottleneck is worthless. It does not improve the output of the whole system and instead creates work that does not have the highest possible impact.

Wardley Maps Link to heading

Simon Wardley developed the idea of Wardley Maps at Fotango in 2005. As CEO of the company he was responsible for the overall strategy of a photo printing service. The main issue he faced was not knowing where to invest in.

The idea is to create a map that helps identify business strategy. It contains two main aspects: the value to the customer and the maturity of the components needed to solve the customer problem. In the first step the different components required to fulfill the customer problem are identified and mapped on the Y-axis. The X-axis describes the maturity of the different components. The maturity model contains four stages: genesis, a brand-new idea or product; custom-built, something build only for this purpose; product/hire, a component you could buy from a vendor; and finally commodity/product, a component that is universally available, like electricity.

The goal of this exercise is to identify where to invest in. Obviously the business should invest in the components that bring the most value for the customer. Trivial examples for this could be the decision to invest into a cloud solution, or build your own data center. I would argue there are only select companies in the world that should actually build their own data centers.

A good introduction to Wardley mapping is this thread by the man himself:

Pioneers, Settlers, Town Planners Link to heading

Similarly to the notion of component maturity, Wardley introduces the different types of approaches one needs in order to be successful in building and maintaining them. The idea is that for the different levels of maturity, a different mind set is required. The pioneers are not afraid of new technology, and are not afraid to walk in unknown territory. Settlers build the bridge from custom-built to commodity by productizing the custom solutions. And finally the town planners are working with commodity products and scale products across the whole organization or maybe even industry.

Small Batches Link to heading

This idea is highly connected to the Theory of Constraints. The larger batches you send through a system, the more difficult it is to deliver. This works in so many different areas that I’ll cover in different aspects in my posts.