Mini Newspaper Mini Update and a Book Report

Hi all!

Today's post is a mini update on the mini-newspaper and then a book report.


After writing about staying offline last week, I made some progress executing on my mini-newspaper idea. I have a short little script that successfully goes to the Trello website, types in my username and password, and grabs a screenshot of my board - all things I was doing manually before. The next step is figuring out how to send that to the printer.

ChatGPT certainly makes things easier when looking up commands, but it's not flawless, by any means. I still 100% consider it a useful productivity tool. (I also find myself trying Bard and, and wonder if I'll find one more useful than the others, but haven't settled on a winner yet.)

Of course, a little script like what I've built so far is very "brittle", meaning that if any little thing changes in the Trello login sequence, or with the printer, the whole thing could fail entirely. It makes me think about integration points and things that would need to be built if others were to ever use this, but right now, it's good enough for me.

Books on Strategy

I think there's a lot of fluff around the concept of "strategy" and I wanted to read more about what other thinkers had written on the topic. These two books were recommended and I would endorse the recommendation if you're curious on the topic.

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

  • "The surprising thing about a good strategy is having one."
  • The author defines a concept called a "kernel", which has three parts. The kernel of a strategy should 1) have a clearly defined problem and diagnosis of the situation, 2) guiding policies, and 3) a set of coherent actions.
  • Clearly diagnosing the situation is often the hardest part.
  • Ideally, the policies and actions will seek some form of leverage or advantage.
  • People often call things strategic, when really what they just mean is "large" or "visionary". While vision is commendable, without guiding policies and coherent actions to follow, vision is just fluff. The author blames the idea of "manifestation" and books like "The Secret" for people mistaking vision for critical thinking and strategic problem solving.
  • Note: The book is a bit rambly and ranty. Definitely could have been trimmed down.

7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy

  • All business strategy is about creating a persistent, unfair advantage.
  • The best way to create that advantage is through invention, then there are various types of advantage that can be developed over time.
  • The various powers grant various value or cost advantages to the holder, and/or create barriers to entry that competitors are either unwilling or unable to take on.
  • The power are:
    • Invention Phase
      • Cornered resource - Things like patents or new technologies that others simply don't have access to.
      • Counter positioning - Uses business models or channel tactics that competitors avoid, because it would cannibalize the competitors business.
    • Takeoff/Growth Phase
      • Scale - Size leads to lower costs which leads to more volume which leads to lower costs
      • Network effects - Linkedin is more valuable the more people are on linkedin.
      • Switching costs - Once customer are invested in a product, they're unlikely to switch.
    • Mature Phase
      • Branding - People buy the name because of a reputation developed over time.
      • Process power - Complicated, interlinked systems that were built over time turn into an advantage when competitors find they need to replicate all the linked systems simultaneously to get to the same level of effectiveness.

Org Design Books

I find org design to be a somewhat nebulous concept, but I think it's best to think of it as a systems design activity where you're trying to define roles, processes, incentives, and structures, then aligning that with your people, with the intent of best delivering value for customer. As a design activity, there's no single "best" or "right" answer, but there are some tools for going about the process.

Honestly, I can't recommend any of these books unless you're in the field and it's critical to your knowledge base, and event then, I'd be hesitant. None of them are written well.

Data Driven Org Design - This is the best of the bunch, but has entire chapters(!) devoted to the idea that data can come from spreadsheets and other business systems, too. Makes clear that there are roles, positions, and people, and to think about all of them as unique components.

  • Macro level work takes the high level value stream, then aligns the major org structure (i.e. product aligned, customer segment aligned, functionally aligned, geographic aligned, hybrid, etc...). Also defines a "role grid", or job definitions/levels for each portion of the org.
  • Micro level work starts to build out detailed org structures using roles from the role grid, and making sure work identified in the value stream activity is accounted for. Also considers fixed vs. variable roles (i.e. there's one CEO regardless of the size of the company), and how positions will be added as the business flexes up and down. For example, I might think of a head of product role as fixed, and then the product teams flex up and down, with rough ratios of 1:1:8 for PMs/Designers/Engineers (made up rule of thumb), and then additional layers as you go past 5-6 product teams. Final details of micro work involve placing people in actual positions.
  • A large portion of the org design activity is really just any sort of change management / leadership: how do you get buy in of the people participating in the process.

Mastering the Cube - Quick and simple list of org design mistakes, like designing orgs around the needs or desires of individuals, rather than the needs of the business.

Designing your Organization: Using the Star Model to solve 5 Critical Design Challenges - Good for the examples it provides, but honestly, just not a good read.

Other Books

Department of Speculation - A series of vignettes following a woman's life. I loved the brief, punchy little scenes.

Gates of Fire - Violent. It's about the Spartan lifestyle and the 300 Spartans who battled at Thermopylae. Fun read if you like historical fiction and action.

Maus: A Survivors Tale - I read this one because it was being banned in places. It's a graphic novel, and the author's choice to portray characters as different species of animal (all the Jews are mice, the Germans are cats) really worked well artistically. The book is about the Holocaust and doesn't pull any punches about the true horror of the experience. The intensity of the content doesn't make it an easy read, but I think it's important to bear witness. Highly recommend.

Empowered - I read this is as a follow up to Inspired. This book focuses more on the management of product teams and product managers, rather than product management itself. The biggest takeaway is that autonomous teams don't need less management because of their autonomy, the management they need is more about alignment and coaching.

That's all for now!

Best regards,
Sam Feller
aka THE Awkward Engineer

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