The Joe Lalley Hypothesis: Successful Product Leaders Transfer the Excitement Around a Problem from the Team to the Stakeholders

Joe Lalley is the Experience Design Leader in Digital Transformation at PriceWaterhouse Coopers, where he helps people and teams solve problems through the process of design. To make this happen, he designs and facilitates workshops, meetings, and design sprints to help teams take a user-centric approach to their business challenges. In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we talk about how Joe changes how teams work across PWC, and his surprising tricks for getting the most out of your meetings.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Joe Lalley Hypothesis: Successful Product Leaders Transfer the Excitement Around a Problem from the Team to the Stakeholders What does Joe do in his role at PWC? How did he get started in tech in the first place? How did he transition from coding to design and product leadership? What was it like working at Viacom when the iPhone launched and Facebook and Twitter grew? How did working for WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) get Joe directly in front of customers?

What is product development like working at big media companies? What is their appetite for risk versus reward? What is it like to do development in a content-driven organization? How did the rising competition push a focus on user experience? How did working at WWE teach Joe a new way of talking about users? What are examples of products that didn’t go according to plan?

How did Joe transition from media into consulting? How do Joe and his team work across different groups in his organization to foster collaboration? How does he get teams to be interested in learning to work in a different way? How do you get out of a pattern of simply fulfilling requests by focusing on questions rather than solutions?

How did Joe train his team to identify patterns of use cases as a way of problem solving across the organization? What are examples of how he drove the conversation back towards the question, rather than the answers? How did they use competitive usability testing to make their case? What does Joe’s team look like in action now that their process is in place? When do you need to push teams to start as if they’re coming at a problem fresh?

How do you explain your development process in a way that stakeholders and business leaders will understand and buy into? What challenges do teams face in adopting new ideas and how does Joe help them prepare to face them? Why does Joe make teams identify something they need to stop doing? How do Joe and his team take advantage of remote tools in order to act more quickly and more effectively? What advice does Joe give to other product leaders looking to change their organizations? What tricks does Joe use to get the most out of meetings?

Quotes From This Episode

Instead of debating on the answer, the solution, I try to get people to agree on the question. What are we trying to solve for? What problem is it? If we don't agree on the problem it's unlikely we’ll agree on a solution. - Joe Lalley Click To Tweet We try to have them prototype the next meeting, the next week, the next two meetings. Not just prototype the idea because having the right idea just isn't enough. You have to be able to explain it and get others excited. - Joe Lalley Click To Tweet You have to make some hard decisions because if you have a great idea, you have to clear the space to allow it to grow. We really push teams to make as hard of a case for this new idea as they do for killing an old idea. - Joe Lalley Click To Tweet


Holly Hester-Reilly: Hi and welcome to the Product Science podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and product leaders build high growth products, teams and companies through real conversations with people who have tried it and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly Hester-Reilly: This week my guest on the Product Science podcast is Joe Lalley, Joe and I met probably a couple years back now and I’ve been really excited to watch as he grows the practice of experimentation and user research at PWC. Joe, do you want to tell us a little bit about what you do these days and how you got there?
Joe Lalley: Yeah, sure so great to be chatting with you Holly. The way I usually describe what I do is I help people and teams solve problem through the process of design. That’s sort of the most general way to put it but what we do is we will design and facilitate either workshops or meetings or project plans to sort of help teams if they’re looking to redesign experience. And that experience can be a digital one, physical one, it can be a program that somebody might have various touchpoints with over a long period of time. The types of things we work on within my team vary a lot but our practices remain relatively consistent. We always put a pretty heavy focus on very high quality inputs, very high quality user research and customer research and observation tactics up front, a lot of focus on ideation that is really mapped towards what we’ve learned from that research and then take teams all the way through taking their ideas through something that’s experienceable and tangible so that it can be tested and refined and validated or invalidated.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. That sounds really amazing. I imagine you didn’t start your career practicing that way. Tell me more about how you got here.
Joe Lalley: Yeah, it’s been kind of a windy career road for me. I started the very early part of my career as a developer, I was writing code early on and spending days kind of building websites, in the pre-CMS days, handwriting HTML and JavaScript and things like that. Did that for a while but I yearned to be able to have human connection and interaction with people that I was missing a little bit in that type of a space. I moved into more of a project management, product management kind of role where I discovered things like usability and user research and sort of started to really understand what those things meant. I think the technology background that I had from early on helped me kind of put a lot of different pieces together around building products. When I had the opportunity to kind of really immerse myself in concepts like design thinking I was able to go to the Stanford D school and take their program. That was a pretty pivotal moment for me because I felt like it connected why I was doing things with what I was doing. I sort of practiced and experimented and failed and succeeded and iterated all along the way.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, I was thinking as you said that, that it connected what you were doing with why you were doing it. I kind of thought to myself, if only that weren’t so unusual.
Joe Lalley: Yes, yeah. That is true. It is a bit unusual and it’s one of these things where, for me when it came together it was this epiphany for me but it’s unfortunate that it was.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I know a little bit about your journey but I’d like for our listeners to know as well. Tell me a little bit about where you, what kind of places and projects you worked on before getting to PWC.
Joe Lalley: Sure. I mentioned that very early on I was working as a developer. I was doing that at CNN, long, long ago. Moved on from there and spent a good portion of my career at Viacom, where I worked with all the different brands throughout Viacom’s portfolio. I spent time working on products for MTV and Nickelodeon and Comedy Central and VH1 and a lot of those different brands. It was a really interesting time and I feel lucky to have worked there during the time that the iPhone launched, during the time that Facebook and Twitter were emerging and evolving. It gave us just this great, great platform to experiment. Mobile was becoming a big focus and we were able to kind of, it almost felt like we were working within a startup inside a big organization because so much of what we were working on was brand new and we got to try things, experiment on things and had a lot of fun doing it. I spent a good portion of my career there and that’s where I sort of transitioned into the world of product and product design and product management.
Joe Lalley: I left there and I went to work for WWE, which is World Wrestling Entertainment. At WWE I led product and technology and was focused on, WWE is an interesting brand in that they have a ton of live entertainment, live content, live events. Almost every day of the year there’s something happening at WWE. One of the really interesting things about being able to work there is that I got to talk directly to the customers on a regular basis. I would go to events and find out what the event was like for them, I would learn a little bit about their experiences with a lot of our digital products and while I was there, we built a few mobile games, we built some integrations between live TV and digital interfaces. The biggest thing I was focused on while I was there was launching and helping to launch WWE Network, which is a direct to consumer video experience where you can watch live TV, archived TV. That was a big, big project where we learned a lot and had a lot of fun.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Cool, I’m curious, it stands out to me that a lot of the things you’ve mentioned are media. Obviously we have a lot of that in New York, a lot of big media brands here so a lot of people in tech do media projects but I feel like it has certain dynamics to it and I wonder if we could talk about that a little bit.
Joe Lalley: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: What were the budgets like? What were the people thinking about? Like the people who were agreeing to do the projects, what were they thinking in terms of risk versus reward, what kind of appetite for that did they have. What is sort of that scene like?
Joe Lalley: It’s interesting. It’s very content driven in a lot of ways. We did consider ourselves a pretty strong product organization and we had a very strong technology organization but a lot of it was just so driven by content, what shows were being created, what entertainment was being created, how were fans responding to it. I felt, again I mentioned we were kind of working in this new space so when we were working on things like new mobile applications and new mobile technology, it was really new so a lot of our budgets were really experimental. We were sort of testing out ideas, we were able to try things out a little bit under the radar in that there really wasn’t anything to compare it to, necessarily because it was all so new. That was really nice, it’s a nice space to be in. It allowed us to kind of learn and iterate a lot. While I was there, one of the things that started affecting a lot of what we did was just all the competition in the space. When streaming services started launching and there were a lot more direct to consumer options, a lot of that space changed. We had to focus even more closely on creating great experiences and listening to customers and paying attention to how they were interacting with us because there were so many places that customers and users could go for good content.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. What did you encounter amongst people in those organization? It really struck me that you mentioned at WWE that there were all these live events and things and you would go to them and talk to the customers and the fans who were there. I’m curious, is that something that lots of people did, did you have to make a case for why you should do it? What was that like?
Joe Lalley: That was one of the things that I really loved about WWE was they’re so, so fan focused. I even had to learn a new way to talk about users so I think a lot of people who kind of work in product and UX will always refer to the user, the user is whoever it is, the customer. I was corrected in a meeting very early on in my time there. They said, “No, no, they’re not users. They are our fans.” I love that because there is this sort of accountability that everybody had towards the end user and the fan but also it’s a reminder that these people are our fans and they’re here to be entertained and it’s important to remember that in everything we do. It was actually very highly encouraged to go to the events, speak to people, really see things through their eyes, which I loved.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s awesome. You mentioned that you learned a lot throughout a lot of these things and I’m curious if you could share, especially in early experimental days of a new platform and things like that, I’m sure that there were some projects that didn’t maybe achieve the outcome that you had hoped.
Joe Lalley: Right.
Holly Hester-Reilly: I’m curious if there’s anything there that you can share what that was like.
Joe Lalley: So many to choose from. Since we’re on the WWE topic, I’ll pick one. This was a really fun one. I forget the exact year but it was the early days of kind of low energy Bluetooth and being able to connect through beacons to location based services. We were at WrestleMania that year and we had decided to build something out, every year at WrestleMania and if people aren’t familiar with WrestleMania it’s the Superbowl of the WWE. It’s a huge, huge event. It takes place every year and before the actual event, there’s usually some sort of a fan expo or something where fans can come in, meet the stars and interact in different ways. We decided we would build out something that was very interactive where people could download an app on their phone and get additional content pushed to them as they made their way through this fan expo. One of the really interesting parts of this expo was there was somebody named The Undertaker, who The Undertaker, he wrestled in many, many WrestleManias and never lost. It was a big, he’s a huge fan favorite. The team there built a graveyard. That was his thing. There were tombstones representing anybody he’d ever defeated in WrestleMania.
Joe Lalley: We used this beacon technology to, as people made their way through this graveyard, just think of the spookiest, creepiest thing with smoke and darkness and hay on the ground and all this kind of stuff. As you made your way up to a tombstone, on the tombstone it would say somebody’s name who he had defeated in a past WrestleMania and then we would push something to your phone because we were detecting that you were within a certain proximity of this tombstone and we had a beacon on the back of it. It would push something and give you a fun fact about the person who he had defeated or a trivia question or something interesting just to sort of add to that experience. The idea we loved, it was really fun and when it worked it was great. But we learned that that technology was really, really tricky and building a network, sort of this mesh network of beacons across an area that had huge steel beams in between areas and big, concrete walls that things would bounce off of was really hard. We spent so many hours in this arena before the fans came in just testing and walking five feet and testing and walking five feet. In the end, I don’t think it was perfect but it was fun to be able to just try something like that in its pretty early days.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I wonder if at that point in time, when things are in the earlier days, did the fans have tolerance for, they’re just like, “Oh it’s really cool that it worked for three of the tombstones” or what was that?
Joe Lalley: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think from their perspective, I don’t think people really knew that this was a new technology or even how it was happening. That’s something you have to take into account when you’re launching something new. Even though you as the product owner or the creator of the experience may know that this is new and untested and all of that. The user doesn’t know that. To them it just didn’t work sometimes, you have to remember that. I still think it’s worth trying things out in that way, even if there’s going to be some amount of kind of variability in the experience because it leads to better experiences down the road. It’s still important to not be afraid to try.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, for sure. This all sounds really fun, MTV and VH1 and WWE and all of that. Then it seems like you got a lot of experience with being close to fans and being able to experiment. How did you get from there to where you are now?
Joe Lalley: Kind of a surprising move I think to me, I don’t know that I ever expected to move into the consulting world. When I was at WWE, somebody who I knew who was here at PWC reached out and mentioned there was a role and it sounded really interesting. I thought that I’d spent a lot of time in the entertainment space, I felt lucky to have been there through some interesting times but kind of wanted to just see the world through a different point of view I think. The more I thought about the world of consulting, where on a daily basis you may be thinking about 10 different industries or 10 different types of users or audiences. There’s such a variety in the types of projects that we might work on, it just sounded really interesting and just a nice kind of change of pace for me. At the time, I still believe this, believe that a lot of the practices and techniques that you apply as it relates to experimentation and product design work and good user experience and empathy for users. I think all of that still applies whether you’re in entertainment or healthcare or finance. It just sounded like an interesting opportunity, it was a bit of a leap for me, I didn’t know what to expect but it’s been great since. I’ve really enjoyed the variety.
Joe Lalley: Now I’m focused on kind of an internally geared initiative to help the organization kind of learn how to work differently, learn how to use new tools. A lot of our projects are actually working directly with PWC teams, where we will become part of their team temporarily to help them launch a product that either helps us work with each other in different ways or helps us work with our clients in different ways. That’s been really fun because within the US we’re 50,000 plus people and there’s so many, even just within PWC there’s so many different opportunities to work in interesting things.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I know that the way that has played out has changed over the years. Tell me a little bit about that. How did you first sort of, I guess find your groove on how you’d work with teams there and get them to be interested in what you do and maybe think about learning to work a different way.
Joe Lalley: Yeah, definitely. I remember one of my first meetings when I first joined, I think this happens with anybody who joins in the organization, you kind of are brought in and you have a certain role. People want to meet you and they are expecting that you have the answers right away, which I had none of because I didn’t know anything.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Right.
Joe Lalley: I spent most of that meeting asking questions versus answering them. I definitely felt a little bit of frustration from people because I think it’s natural for them to sort of feel like, “Oh this new person. He’s coming in with this experience and a plan.” From my perspective I needed context. I knew what I knew through research and the interview process but there’s a lot more I didn’t know. I just asked a ton of questions and I met as many people as I possibly could and spent a lot of time with my team, who I had inherited and then I had to hire a few people to kind of fill in a couple of pieces. Just sort of learning what their background was, what they were passionate about, reconfigure the team a little bit and sort of what we were focused on. That took a little bit. That took a couple of months to get my feet under me. Then I put in a process that took a while to get going where we, I think had gotten into a bit of a pattern that many organization get into of almost sort of fulfilling requests. Somebody might ask for, “Hey can you go build this?” Then you build something and they say, “Well it’s not exactly what I expected.” You go back, you make some changes, review it, go back, you get into that cycle.
Joe Lalley: I was trying to break that cycle because it happens in any organization. I put in a model where, instead of us debating on the answer, the solution, I would really try to get people to agree on the question. What are we trying to solve for? What problem is it? If we don’t agree on the problem then it’s unlikely that we’re going to agree on a solution. We spent a lot of time identifying use cases. This context was around mostly products with a marketing focus or a sales focus. Things that might generate new business or new clients or help us work with clients. We were able to start boiling things down into different use cases that were common. Then we worked on generating the few solutions that would satisfy each of those use cases. We did a ton of testing, usability testing and experimentation to validate which ones did the joy the best. Then we were able to kind of reduce the number of ad hoc projects. When something would come in, we’d be able to say, “Well this sounds like this use case and there are some options that we know work well for that use case. Let’s try one of those. That was successful in a lot of ways but it took work to kind of get there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: A lot of work I’m sure. I think a lot of people, you really hit the nail on the head when you say there was a pattern of fulfilling requests. I think that’s a really common thing that I’m sure our listeners will have experienced or seen. I think the trick of how you break out of that is really hard work but really important work. I imagine before that and after that, you probably felt pretty differently about the day to day experience of the work. Right?
Joe Lalley: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Tell me a little more about, maybe if you take some examples, you mentioned starting to try to drive people to align on what the question is rather than the solution and then starting to identify patterns of use cases. Are there any examples where you can tell us how that went, when someone would come to you with, “Joe I want your team to build X for us or solve X for us”? How did you drive that conversation back to the question?
Joe Lalley: Through a lot of kind of trial and error. One of the things we started to do was, when somebody would come to us with a request and in many cases they would say, “I know the answer. I think you need to build this.” We would try to find something that looked like it and worked like it even if it was not our product. “Hey, can you build me a dashboard that will show me data that works in this way?” We would find one that looked and worked in that way and tried to solve for the same kind of thing. Whether it’s a marketing dashboard that might tell somebody what sorts of campaigns are performing better or worse, we’d find something similar and then we would conduct usability tests on that dashboard. We did a ton of testing of competitors’ things and testing of non-competitors’ or indirect competitors experiences and then we would, instead of debating whether or not the experience worked, we would just play the videos for people.
Joe Lalley: This, I think, is one of the most powerful things you can do is just taking emotion out of the discussion and just show somebody, objectively, this is somebody who is a potential user. It’s not somebody that we know and they’re using this experience, this product. Either they’re have a great experience with this component of it or they may be really frustrated with this. It’s really eye opening and it really takes down the emotion a few notches because people, it’s totally human, if you focus on a space or a problem or a solution for long enough, you will become really attached to it. It’s hard to detach. Seeing somebody struggle or fail is a great eye opener. We did a lot of that, I did a lot of that. Didn’t always work but it worked enough to start moving the needle and getting people sort of focusing more on the question and not the answer.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s a lot cheaper for the business and everyone involved than building the whole thing yourself first and then usability testing that idea they came to you with.
Joe Lalley: Yeah, that’s a great point, the cost. That’s something, I’m glad you mentioned that because that’s a great tactic to use as well is just remind people how expensive it is to build something that somebody doesn’t need because it requires rework and going back to the drawing board and a lot of time and energy. That’s a great argument to use.
Holly Hester-Reilly: It’s something that I think when I was in house at places it always surprised me how little the teams and the leaders there thought to put into competitive usability testing. I don’t know if, this maybe comes from our particular place in the ecosystem or how we came up through it. It’s not like I spent decades in the industry before that were so easy to do. In this day and age, in the past decade, it’s been so easy to find somebody using your competitor’s product. I jus can’t imagine why you wouldn’t.
Joe Lalley: Yeah. It’s cheap, it’s easy and it can save so much time. There’s so much data available.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Even if you’re going to build it yourself, even if you’re going to do the new research yourself from scratch, instead of reading a review that somebody else did, it’s still relatively so much cheaper than building the wrong thing.
Joe Lalley: Yeah. The other thing we’ve seen, we’ll build a component of that. In some cases, today, we will design and facilitate workshops where we’ll help a team take something from end to end, from problem finding through problem identification, ideation, prototyping, testing, all the way through and we, right before the ideation step, we build in a component of just competitive research. Sometimes it provides a good amount of inspiration and people can see, “Oh that’s something I hadn’t thought of. If we pivoted it in this way it might work well for our use case.” It’s great to help validate and invalidate things but also as a source of inspiration.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, absolutely. Tell me more about these workshops. Now that you’re, how many years in are you, to being at PWC?
Joe Lalley: Almost five. Four and a half, about.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Solid.
Joe Lalley: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Now that you’re that far in, you’re leading a group and there’s more recognition that it’s not just about fulfilling requests for them and people come to you, I’m sure they still come to you with requests because people are human.
Joe Lalley: Yes.
Holly Hester-Reilly: But you have a way to respond that you’ve got a team that’s trained on this. What does this look like? What is the process?
Joe Lalley: When we get a request for something and usually it will come in, a lot of what we do comes in through word of mouth where we’ve worked with another group, they’ve mentioned us to somebody and that person will come to us and say, “Hey, we’re looking to redesign a process that takes place.” A recruiting process, an onboarding process. A web dashboard that people use. It varies a lot. We’ll start just by going back to my early days, the first meeting I had, we’ll ask a lot of questions. It’s really important for us to understand what’s been tried before, what are you working on now, how deep rooted are the feelings around what’s being done at this point. How open to maybe some new data or new approaches are people. We just have open dialogue about that. Sometimes if it seems like the team, I’ve been in this situation where I’ve worked on something for a really long time and I need some of my mental layers peeled back. If we identify that we’ll say, “Would you be open to brand new, fresh round of research? Let’s start as if we haven’t seen this before.” Try to put everybody in the mindset of, it’s their first day. That’s one model.
Joe Lalley: We’ll design something that will involve our engagements are typically about five to six weeks long and two to four weeks of it will be research based. It will be us conducting user interviews, us doing observation, absorbing any quantitative data that might be available to sort of help us look in the right place. Then throughout that process, in addition to looking at what are the end users and customers doing, we’re interviewing stakeholders and team members to get the other side of the empathy that I think is really required to get the team to a good place. It’s not just important to know what users feel, it’s important to know what stakeholders feel and what business owners feel and what they are motivated by. We’ll do a lot of interviewing of them as well just to understand what are they accountable for, what are they concerned about and how can we position them best, if the team does identify a really good idea to help make that idea come to life. I spend a really significant amount of that time doing all that research and then we design a workshop that will take anywhere from one day to five days and it really depends on what we’re doing. The requirement that we have, a lot of times, to help make it successful is that we do it continuously. Whatever it is, we don’t stop.
Joe Lalley: I think the workshop works because you keep your momentum and keep your connection to what you’re trying to solve for because it’s happening one step after the other after the other. We will start the workshops by having everybody absorb all the information that’s available, go immediately into synthesis, immediately into ideation, immediately into prototyping. We bring users in and immediately into testing and validation. We don’t stop there. Usually at that point, teams have a really good feel for whether or not the idea they’ve landed on is likely to be effective or is worth carrying forward but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re prepared to take it out to people who didn’t participate in that workshop. We’ll spend a big chunk of time at the end helping them prepare for bringing it out to their bosses or the rest of their team. That’s where a lot of that research around stakeholder and business owner motivation comes in because it’s really important to know how to explain it in a way that they care about. We try to have them prototype the next meeting, the next week, the next two meetings. Not just prototype the idea because having the right idea just isn’t enough. You have to really be able to explain the idea and get others excited about that idea.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s awesome. I think that part is one of the things, when I heard you speak about it recently, that I really loved because so much of it is about not just having that right idea but being able to persuade others and get them along, right? I really love the idea that you are ending your workshops with helping essentially your clients, your internal clients, figure out how they’re going to sell that. How they’re going to talk about it and how they’re going to tie it back. What are some things you’ve encountered in that phase of it? What challenges do people typically have that your team helps them prepare for?
Joe Lalley: One of the biggest that we see is teams will feel great about their idea. They feel like they’ve done the hard work to validate it, identify the right problem, all of that. They feel like its something they absolutely have to do. Sometimes they’ll go back into their day to day and realize that they just don’t have the bandwidth. It might be a great idea but there’s just no room left in the bucket. The bucket is full. One of the things we spent a lot of time on in that sort of preparation and we call it the excitement transfer portion of the workshop is we have them identify something that they’re going to stop doing as a team. They include that in their excitement transfer or their explanation to whoever else needs to know about it. It’s funny, we started introducing this component at the workshops and people love this part because almost everyone can think of something they would love to stop doing. There are some projects that just continue on because they just continue you. You have to make some hard decisions because if you have a great idea, you have to clear the space to allow it to grow. That’s one of the big roadblocks we have run into. We really push teams to make as hard of a case for this new idea as they do for killing an old idea.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. They are killing the zombies, too, and you’re helping them do it so that they can say, “Okay I’ve got to make space for this.”
Joe Lalley: Yep. Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: That’s great. How many teams have you brought through this kind of process?
Joe Lalley: We’ve probably, just in the past year and a half I’d say we’ve done somewhere around 200 different workshops for various teams. In some cases, we may do a series of workshops. It’s not one per team. There might be followups and things like that but I’ve probably done around 200. That sort of expands to over 1,000, 1500 people who have been involved in those because they range in size from small teams to really large teams. We kind of structure them based on what will work best based on the size of the group. It scaled really quickly. One thing that has allowed it to scale and allowed us to scale ourselves is we, along the way, started realizing that not all of these workshops needed to be in person. We’ve adjusted our tactics and that’s actually another thing we’ll ask a lot of questions about when we’re evaluating what we might do with a team is does what they’re trying to achieve require people to be physically in the same location? We found that in a lot of cases it doesn’t. You can accomplish a lot through remote tools, there’s lot of really good ones and powerful ones that allow for collaboration.
Joe Lalley: On top of the tools being more effective, doing something remote has allowed us to do things sooner because all of a sudden, all of these dates open up on a calendar that weren’t available before if you’re not asking people to travel to something. That’s been something that I think has really helped. We’re probably doing, I’d say half and half, virtual and in person at this point.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah, that’s awesome. You’re preaching to the choir on that one but I know not everybody’s on the same spot.
Joe Lalley: Not everybody is there yet.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. I definitely at this point, I don’t even go to see my clients in Manhattan terribly often. I’ll be like, “Okay you’re downtown. I don’t want to get on a train.”
Joe Lalley: Yeah. I’ve had people who are in the same building and the same floor as me but if I know we’re joining a video call with three people who are going to be in three different locations, I’ll tell the person not to come into my office because I think once you sort of unlevel the playing field in a conversation, where if two people are looking into the same laptop and having a little bit of a side conversion and the other three people are Brady Bunch bubbles on the video chat, it changes the dynamic right away. I think that’s the other thing, too, is we try to make sure everybody is on the same level [inaudible] to contribute and collaborate.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s one of the first lessons I learned to. If one person is remote, everybody is remote. Even if they could be in the same place, you’re better off having everybody on their own screen doing it that way too.
Joe Lalley: Agreed.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. It’s so delightful to hear how this has grown and how much of an impact you guys are making now. What are some other thoughts, do you speak much to people who are trying to drive this kind of change? What do you tell them? Especially if they’re much earlier on the journey?
Joe Lalley: Yeah I do, I get a lot of questions from people. I write about a lot of these kind of topics. I’m able to seek comments and respond to comments. I do get a lot of questions and my advice in a lot of cases is, if you’re trying to invoke change in an organization, do what you can to kind of take the emotion out of things because change is an emotional thing. If you can do something like what we were talking about before, show somebody a usability video of somebody being frustrated. It kind of takes away the me versus you and it’s now, we are trying to make it better for this person. I think do what you can to take the emotion out. Also don’t be afraid to look silly. That’s something I’ve really tried. I’m a big believer in adopting meeting techniques and tactics that are really, really customized to the outcome you’re trying to achieve. That has led me to do some really ridiculous things like play music. We had a series of meetings where every meeting had an 80s TV show theme.
Joe Lalley: I tried it only because I wanted people to remember that meeting versus every other meeting they were in that day. It was really ridiculous but it sort of worked because people would say, “Oh that was the Magnum PI meeting that day.” Just try really ridiculous things. That’s my advice. Don’t be afraid to look silly. I’ve looked really, really silly in many of these meetings. But it’s caused me to kind of learn and iterate and not take myself too seriously either.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s really fun, the meetings. How did you come up with that?
Joe Lalley: I have no idea where that came from. The meeting itself wasn’t probably a lot of people who are listening have meetings like this. It was a product update meeting. Many companies have these where you’ve got a road map for a given product and there’s always things that are being released or are being tried and tested and then you talk about the future road map and all that. Those meetings aren’t that exciting usually. But it was something that’s really necessary. We were doing them on a monthly basis. I was just thinking, how can we make this a little bit more fun? Each meeting and each product update had a theme. The theme might be a new feature that we were trying to launch. The new feature might be something like a personalization feature. Then we would find an 80s TV show that very loosely had some sort of personalization theme associated with it. When I say very loosely, like almost not at all where the associates most of the time makes no sense, which was kind of okay to be if nothing else, it made people sort of perk up and say, “what a minute, what are they talking bout?” Ten maybe they listen to the rest of the meeting. We tried it, we had, I don’t know if you remember the show Quantum Leap? We had-
Holly Hester-Reilly: Oh I do.
Joe Lalley: We had Magnum P.I., we had Nightrider, we broke the TV show mold for a while and did a couple of Star Wars ones, [crosstalk 00:38:22]. I don’t know it seemed to work. I got good feedback from people who thought it was just funny. It was almost a trick to get them to remember what I actually wanted them to remember.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. That’s cool. It seems like you’re applying a really solid understanding of how people think about things, how they feel and think to everything that you do.
Joe Lalley: Yeah because I feel like, I don’t know, for every workshop I make the assumption that somebody had to deprioritize something else in their life to be there.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Joe Lalley: It’s really important to make the time worthwhile and I think that’s true for meetings as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. You mentioned that you’ve been, before we started the recording, you mentioned you’ve been on a bit of a kick about making things useful. Is there anything else that’s sort of, do you have any guidance or thoughts that you use to figure out how we’re going to make this useful or when should we kill it?
Joe Lalley: Yeah. There are a couple of tactics that I started to use. One of them, I call it the calendar cleanse. On a monthly basis I go through my calendar and I just go through each thing and ask myself, “Do I add value to this meeting? Do I get value from this meeting?” If I can’t answer yes to one of those two, I either delete it or decline it or in some way remove myself from it because it happens. You join recurring meetings that were really, really valuable and important for a while and maybe they aren’t anymore. I do a very routine cleanse of the calendar to try and eliminate things that aren’t useful anymore. Then we talked about this a little bit before but before scheduling a meeting, I will work my team and think really critically about what kind of a meeting we want to have. There might be a meeting where you’re looking to make decisions on things. Those kind of meetings I think you should leverage a lot of silence. We can do that through remote tools or even in person tools but use silence to help you make decisions. Try to use voting tools, things like that versus discussion that may not get you to a decision that’s based on whatever problem you’re trying to solve.
Joe Lalley: We’ll do the same thing for ideation meetings, use a lot of silence, keep the meetings small and try not to allow too much open ended discussion because I’m a big believer in if we’re in a meeting discussing ideas and we kind of go off on a tangent about one idea for five minutes, then that may be 10 ideas that didn’t get shared, didn’t get the opportunity to get exposed. Kind of splitting evaluation from generation, which those two tend to get merged in ideation meetings. Depending on what we’re trying to achieve, we’ll cater the techniques towards those. Always ask ourselves what do we want to get out of this meeting? Why are we even having it? Do we need one at all?
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. For anybody, just for a little more clarity, when you say use silence, you mean people are doing activities or writing or thinking? What are the different ways you use silence in a meeting?
Joe Lalley: Yes. We’ll do an activity, we do it a lot, we call it the silent storm. It’s sort of the anti-brainstorm where in most cases a team has a given goal they’re trying to achieve. It may be make registration easier to use on this product. That might be a goal for a team. We’ll then facilitate a session which we can do in person or remote where we have everybody individually generate as many reasons why that is not easy currently. What are all the blockers? What are all the things that are getting in the way of that and not discuss those. Because once they do discuss, people influence each other and you kind of lose the volume of input. Generate, what are all the things getting in the way. Think problems first. Then we’ll do kind of a bit of finitity mapping and organize all of those blockers and problems and challenges that are getting in the way of the team’s goal. Then do a quick vote and say, “Which of these are the biggest? Or which is the most immediate? Which is the most interesting?” Just have them vote on what they want to focus on because if you try to focus on everything you really can’t usually make an impact.
Joe Lalley: Pick one of those and then pivot the team to silently generate solutions to that problem. Turn the problem into a question, how might we make registration easier to use and generate a bunch of solutions. Do it silently because again, just like generating all the reasons why something isn’t happening, generating all the ways that it could happen, the more you discuss usually the fewer ideas you generate. We don’t allow the discussion really until the very end when we’ve had the team individually generate a bunch of data, synthesize it, organize it, vote and then the discussion ends up being more about how you carry it out, how you actually make that thing come to life versus what the right thing is.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. As a fellow facilitator, I find, I know you said that you’ve done hundreds of these now. I think it’s similar, when you’ve spent so much time doing these things it becomes so obvious how much more effective the silence it. At this point, sometimes when people start having a one person at a time discussion about something I just want to be like, “This is so slow and ineffective.”
Joe Lalley: Yeah, I joke with my team that those kind of discussions cause me to break out in hives.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yes.
Joe Lalley: I can’t. I get this pit in my stomach and that’s just not good.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah but I think when, you know I talk to people all the time where they just haven’t done enough of that to have experienced it themselves. It’s just so normal for whatever reason. I mean, it’s the way we started doing group work in school and all the way from there.
Joe Lalley: Yeah.
Holly Hester-Reilly: We’re just used to the, then I talk and then you talk and I try not to, some people will try not to take up too much time and other people will try to take up all the time.
Joe Lalley: Yep. That’s where the point of just don’t worry about looking silly, if you want to get a team to work in this way or have a meeting in this way, you’ll get some funny looks. People will feel uncomfortable and expect it. That’s okay.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Yeah. Exactly. I totally agree. Well, this has been awesome. Thank you so much for your time Joe. If people want to find you, where can they find you?
Joe Lalley: I’m probably active on LinkedIn, if you look me up on LinkedIn I publish a lot of articles there, really enjoy having commentary there. On Twitter I’m pretty active @ItsJL, I-T-S-J-L on Twitter. I have a Medium blog that I maintain, if you look me up on Medium I’m there as well.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Great, we’ll put all those links in the show notes so people can find you if they need a little help.
Joe Lalley: All right, sounds good.
Holly Hester-Reilly: Awesome. Well, thanks so much Joe. Have a fantastic afternoon.
Joe Lalley: All right, you too. Thanks Holly.
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