If you work alongside Bristol-based product strategy and UX consultant Joe Leech then chances are you’ll also work alongside his dog Little Dude. The fox terrier travels everywhere with him – to London once a week, wherever it is, where Joe goes, he goes.
That said, you’d be lucky to find yourself working alongside Little Dude, as Joe has to turn away the majority of the offers of work he receives. Fourteen years into his product career and having enjoyed working with big organisations like MoMa, Raspberry Pi, AO.com, Disney, eBay, and Marriott, Joe struck out on his own five years ago and now works with no more than four businesses at any one time. “I’m very strict about this, otherwise I can’t give them all the time they deserve,” says Joe. “At the moment, one is in the US, two are in London, and one is in Cardiff. That’s fairly typical for me.”
They tend to be long-term engagements. Joe coaches and mentors product teams, supporting them to make good decisions and good user-centred design choices. He says: “Every week I work with two or three people in the product organisation and understand their immediate challenges. I help to resolve these challenges and also look at the longer term, like deciding what to do next. I’m a sounding board.”
He enjoys working with US businesses and says that he finds they’re better at working remotely than UK businesses because they’re used to being geographically dispersed. He also loves working with post-Series A companies: “I love the excitement and opportunity, when they’re taking on the world, and going places. They need support to grow quickly, they’ve got the will to do it, and a willingness to change and adapt. The pace is fantastically exciting and I learn a lot from it.”
These business relationships often start after Joe has been called in to investigate the symptoms of an underlying problem. “I’ll be told ‘we’re not shipping stuff when we should, UX is poor, we’re struggling to keep staff’. Whatever it is, I’ll first get an understanding of the organisation by talking to the people. I might do a review of the product itself, to understand what’s happening. From that, I work with them to act upon a plan. I also look at the strategic harder-to-fix stuff and help with hiring.”
Challenges in big Businesses
While Joe works with organisations of all sizes and is very conscious of the challenges for product people in big businesses. Such challenges arise because the management structure has failed to keep pace with the speed at which tech has moved. He works with startups who can build and ship products every two weeks and with larger organisations who want to do this but are hindered by complicated management structures and long-winded approval processes. He adds: “I find myself working with product managers who want to do the right things but are struggling with the complicated more traditional organisations they work in. What has made you successful doesn’t always keep you successful and you have to keep evolving – product managers are at the forefront of that.”
But these big businesses are full of clever people, he says. “You might assume that because the organisation is bureaucratic the people within it will be too. But everyone is really switched on and really smart. They’re very good at what they do but aren’t in a structure that supports them.” Product management is essentially a bottom-up approach, he says, but in most traditional organisations the approach is top-down, and management “can struggle with being told what they should be doing from the bottom up”. These senior people are increasingly of interest to Joe. At the moment he coaches the teams doing the work, but he’s starting to coach business leaders about product strategy. “They’re feeling a bit left behind,” he says. “They don’t feel comfortable or confident to make decisions about digital product development.”
He notes that large organisations that have learned to allow autonomy can do really well. “Results are better anywhere where autonomy is valued,” Joe asserts. “Take a high street ecommerce business – 15 years ago, the internet business was tiny and the focus was on getting products into stores. The website team were the mavericks, and no one cared very much what they did because it wasn’t the core focus of the business.” For most high street businesses this position has now flipped, the bricks and mortar business is getting smaller and the focus is on ecommerce. “The autonomy given to the web team meant that the people managing the team have now become very senior, with the ability to refocus the organisation.”
Joe contrasts this with high street banks, where staff typically have little autonomy. “Teams don’t get the autonomy to ship stuff, management is very top-down, launching an app is treated like a branch opening. The excuse is that it’s regulation, but you can operate autonomously and adhere to regulation without being slowed down.” He points out that the recent crop of challenger banks, like Monzo or Starling, are bound by the same regulations but aren’t slow-moving organisations like the traditional high street banks. “I worked on the first ever agile project at moneysupermarket.com,” he adds. “We launched a new credit card project in two months, with all the compliance and regulation that entailed.”
Quick Fixes and a Strategic View
Setting out on his own has allowed Joe to be selective about who he works with and about the hours he works. He has a young family so it’s important to him that he’s at home. “I miss having somewhere to go sometimes, but I’m rigorous about giving myself structure,” he says.
Rigour is also something Joe brings to the other parts of his work – he’s written a book, Psychology for Designers, and he spends about a quarter of his working time delivering workshops and speaking at conferences. In fact, he spoke at mtpcon London in 2019 and delivered a keynote (and his popular Jobs To Be Done workshop) at MTP Engage Manchester in February 2020 – a practical, hands-on way to understand how to make the right product choices based on user needs.
He draws on old skills for this work, including his work in neuroscience and says that this, and most notably the psychology aspect of his career has been invaluable in building products people love to use. “I’ve shared much of what I learned in my book which despite the title, is a great primer for product managers too.”
He also spent a few years teaching between finishing his first degree and starting his MSc. “I worked in international schools so it was a good way to travel. The skills I acquired as a teacher are the ones I rely on most now – standing in front of big groups of people, keeping their attention, you have to make them like you or they’ll throw things at you! If people like you and you entertain them then they’ll learn. That’s something I’ve taken into the conference talks I do and workshops that I run.”