As part of my ongoing exploration of ‘Side Projects’ I’ve been interviewing some individuals whose extra-curricular activities might help investigate and explore both the nature of side projects and the strategies for success.
Two years ago, I met Matt Mullan on one of his previous side projects – helping organise the hugely successful TEDxBristol event in 2015. We’ve kept in touch ever since and for the fourth interview in the series I caught up with Matt and his colleagues Stuart Morris and Nick Clapp, whose work-based side project is now developing a life of its own outside the business.
Matt, Stuart, and Nick are all colleagues at a leading global technology firm. All three are engineers of different stripes and types but it’s their shared values rather than their shared backdrop that links them all to their emerging side-project, a social enterprise called Eurekaha.
They describe Eurekaha as a new programme to help teach young college students about design thinking through live socially-impactful projects. The students gain valuable employability skills, participate in socially valuable activity, social impact emerges through the design work the students do as part of the project, and the scheme is run and supported by young professionals from major companies not only giving something back to the community but building bridges between the generations too.
“The potential is for the model to have a development role for young people, a development role for older people, the focus on addressing social needs and delivering a social good.” (Matt)
It’s important to understand where Eurekaha has come from though, how a corporate side project has become a collective personal one.
The Corporate Side Project
Four years previously, Matt was involved in bringing Design Thinking as a discipline into his employer’s business and establishing a Design Centre, later working closely with Stuart in the delivery of creative thinking training. Matt and Stuart are both massively enthusiastic about design thinking, creativity, and their role in developing innovative ideas. Both have had slightly “maverick” careers within an otherwise traditional technology firm and both are passionate about the potential for sharing design thinking as a toolkit for would-be innovators and change-makers. They describe design thinking as a means of “helping engineers enjoy coming to work!”
Matt’s involvement in the Design Centre ended after a company reshuffle, yet despite a level of personal frustration, Matt grasped a new opportunity to engage with the Further Education sector when it came along a little later.
Two years ago, Matt was asked to explore building supportive outreach relationships with a local Further Education College. Rather than roll out the usual certification schemes and industrial support offer he proposed a new approach that would up-skill college students in design thinking by challenging them with pressing and relevant user experience briefs linked to local business needs. At this stage, this is still a corporate side-project though, a business investment in a speculative project that might be part of future plans.
It was at this stage that Matt drew Nick into the project. Nick describes himself rather differently to our “mavericks” – he describes his career path as having been much more traditional but highlighted that he had recognised how design led approaches were addressing issues in the business that traditional models were failing to resolve, thereby re-igniting a purpose in his work. Matt had identified Nick because he brought a different skill-set to the project; more conservative, detailed, more dedicated as a people-focused manager. It was however Nick’s shared values – developing young people into skilled professionals – that cemented him into the project. Nick initially found the project more “daunting” but he is near-messianic about it now:
“I saw a different world for the business, I got real enjoyment, I loved seeing young people grow.” (Nick)
Matt then drew Stuart into the project because he had a natural skill set for it – Stuart had and does work as a creative trainer and change management consultant. He identifies with the project as a “creative expression” and natural extension of a career that was transformed by retraining as an internal consultant many years ago in a previous role.
The relationship with the college was excellent and the work done with the students went well and was received very positively… and then business conditions changed and the team were required to focus on a new project in a different part of the business.
They’d iterated the scheme twice, learned a great deal, established great relationships and formed a hunch that this could be exploited as a means of creating social value. They were enjoying it, valuing it, wanting to keep it going…
The Personal Side Project
So, it became a personal side project rather than a corporate one and Eurekaha was born.
“It only seemed natural… How do we continue it? It’s such a good thing to do!” (Nick)
The three of them are now using their own spare time to continue the work and put it on a stable self-sustaining footing.
All three positively engage with the idea of Eurekaha as a side project in the way I’ve been defining them so far. It’s very much a personal passion in different ways for each of them; Design for Matt, Creativity for Stuart, and People Development for Nick. They bring their various professional skills as innovation leaders, trainers, and managers, and finally they see this as something they want to be doing tomorrow too. So much so that they’ve continued it even when the support of their employer fell away.
They’re all passionate about the learning from the project – they’re developing skills, doing good, and gaining purpose and meaning from it.
“If it comes to nothing, look what we got from it!” (Matt)
Matt further reflects that side projects also play a role in psychological well-being; his own side projects being a way of “staying sane” and his partner tolerates them on that basis.
Secrets of Success
Finding time, especially to get together to collaborate has been critical. They’ve dedicated a common evening to it, as their day job releases them early on a Friday afternoon, they now use that time to focus on the project instead.
They have been in discussions to get license if not support from their employer- so that the company understands what they’re up to and understands when they resist working overtime even if they’re not getting time off to do it.
“We’ve had to put boundaries in place to prevent over-demands on our time at work especially. We’ve had to adopt a laser sharp focus, resistant to inevitable mission creep.” (Matt)
They’re in the process of applying for an RSA Catalyst Grant to provide some initial funding – and a bit of exposure.
Their other observation about success is about selecting your team – and the importance of both working style and values over skills. They trust one-another, they bring different skills, but critically they share the same values, vision, and understanding for why they’re involved in the project.
“If you’re in this because you think there are millions to be made you’re in the wrong place!” (Nick)