A conversation with Jess Leitch, Head of Studio at Idean
This is part of my series on thought leaders in the innovation space.
Sydney native Jess Leitch is a designer based in London, currently working as the Head of Studio for Idean on the West Coast, based in San Fransisco. Her accoladed experience in business, product, and service strategy is expertly interwoven with detailed service and product design and backed by qualitative and quantitative research.
Jess has used this cross-section of skills to help companies set up service design teams from scratch as well as to launch new products, services, and businesses. She has published a guide on how to set up service design teams and spoken at prominent gatherings such as Design Thinking USA and the Service Design Network Conference in Dublin about launching new businesses and how to use design to increase the value of digital products.
Operational vs. Strategic Leadership
In 2015, Jess co-authored a highly-popular article on strategy+business outlining the ten principles of strategic leadership. It’s a guide to help companies develop and foster the growth of leaders who can effectively champion times of fundamental change within organizations. She continues to use this concept in her work today, which has helped many companies in their processes of innovation and transformation. According to Jess, many of the initiatives that are innovation- or digital transformation-driven are unsuccessful because there is a lack of truly strategic leadership to carry it through.
Strategic leadership differs from the traditionally-understood operational leadership, which most companies already have. Successful operational managers are those who operate in the context of running an operation—think: ensuring that costs are correct, targets are hit, and the status quo is maintained. The role of an operational manager is unquestionably vital to the success of any organization. The problem arises when such leaders are put in a transformational position that they are not equipped to handle effectively.
“There’s always a role for leadership, and quite often the people who are put in charge of [innovation] initiatives are operational leaders who’ve been successful in the context of an operation,” Jess says. “Then they’re put into these transformational roles, and they’re asked to think about what the future of the business is, and it’s never anything they’ve done before.” In other words, there is an entirely different set of skills required for leadership in leading innovation.
Enter, strategic leaders: people in positions of power with the know-how, experience, and confidence necessary to lead the company through a transformational change.
Enter, strategic leaders: people in positions of power with the know-how, experience, and confidence necessary to lead the company through a transformational change, which includes solving complex and bigger-picture problems. Identifying such leaders is the biggest challenge for companies because they often go unnoticed within an organization or are not allowed to grow into such roles.
Methods for seeking out potential strategic leaders, according to Jess, include:
- Empowering people at all levels of the organization to act with authority
- Allowing space for employees to think creatively and fail safely
- Connecting like-minded individuals so that they may learn from one another
- Creating time for productive reflection
- Enabling open access to information for personal development
Without a doubt, strategic leadership (with the highest success rates found from promoting from within versus hiring from outside) is vital to the success of a business interested in pursuing innovation or transformation. The process of identifying strategic leadership can take time and be tedious, but companies are better set up for success to move forward with growth once appropriate leadership is in place.
At the heart of defining innovation is the question, “What are you trying to do?” Jess integrates the Dual Transformation Model to help clients address this question and identify the best type of innovation needed. The model is based on the idea that the skill set, processes, structures, and success metrics for innovation differ depending on the type and the terrain of innovation and innovation type.
“While you’re improving the everyday parts of the business, you also need to be thinking about what are the asteroids that are coming to hit you and how can you place additional bets that will make sure that you’re ready?” says Jess. “And to do those things is very different.”
“While you’re improving the everyday parts of the business, you also need to be thinking about what are the asteroids that are coming to hit you and how can you place additional bets that will make sure that you’re ready?”
The skillset required to focus on and improve daily business practices versus visualizing the future and potential setbacks of innovation require different tools, processes, structures, and governance. Once the goal of innovation is identified, the question of innovation or transformation can be addressed.
Innovation or Transformation?
One of the most critical and overlooked components of successful innovation is structure, according to Jess. “Structure plays a much bigger role than anyone wants to acknowledge,” she says. “The biggest thing that stands in the way of successful companies innovating is their existing success.”
When it comes to making an already existing business better, innovation is often an effective tactic. Innovation groups within a business can reach the horizons of innovation needed to make a positive improvement. “There’s always a really good role for innovation within the organization to make it better,” Jess says.
On the other hand, if a business is looking to transform, i.e. start a new business, create a separate bet, hedging, etc., structure must be addressed. Otherwise, even without the intention to, the transformation will be compared with the same metrics as the existing business, therefore not allowing the new idea a chance to evolve and stand on its own. Most successful initiatives are those that are separate from the existing structures, according to Jess.
A failure to evaluate structure within a transformation often leads to unavoidable obstacles in the form of regulations, scale, and technology. “That’s part of the reason why we try and fit transformations outside of the existing organization structure because of the tech stacks that you have to build on, otherwise sometimes it’s just easier to start from scratch.”
Many successful businesses see no reason or desire to do or try anything different than their working system because it’s working, Jess says. It isn’t until a wall is hit that a change of direction is brought to attention as a necessity. And this usually comes after years of turning a blind eye to sales figures that indicate a problem, because there is still accumulating revenue and the core business is still larger than any bets in progress.
One reason a company goes blind and doesn’t find success in the pursuit of growth is that it has limited awareness, which feeds its own biases. “You need a lot of different perspectives for you to be successfully innovative,” Jess says. There is a delicate balance between protecting ideas and gaining fresh insight from outside sources. It takes a sound method to identify unbiased solutions that do not yet exist open-mindedly.
In her past work at a consulting firm, Jess used the Ishikawa, or fishbone, method to consult clients and help them answer their “what” of intended innovation. In her opinion, this left clients worse off and with a more complicated situation. “I got sick of going into a new client with the presumption that we already had the solution, that we had an answer,” she said.
Since then, Jess has acquired the education and experience needed to have a broader perspective and a more effective method. Now, she denounces the Ishikawa method as a bias insertion tool. “It is this hypothesis tree where you use your own biases to come up with a solution,” she says. Instead, Jess was attracted to a design-centric approach, where no assumptions are made, and a knower’s mindset is replaced with a learner’s mindset.
This method is also backed by what Jess refers to as the “origins of consulting”, the original McKinsey idea built to share information between competitors without any negative implications for competitors. In other words, the best strategic approach is one where an answer is not assumed, and there is no pirating of competitors’ ideas.
The best strategic approach is one where an answer is not assumed, and there is no pirating of competitors’ ideas.
Adopting a learner’s perspective with an open mind, paired with integrated strategic leadership and particular attention to structure, helps people clearly define innovation and set themselves up for success. When asked how to measure innovation ultimately, Jess says it all depends on what a company’s goals are.
“If you don’t articulate how to innovate well, then you’re not going to sweat again to get results that you desire.”
If you want to read my other articles about innovation experts and practitioners, please check them all out here.