Project Management Institute

The Leadership of Creative Projects for Economic Development and Growth

Transcript

JOE CAHILL

Hi, I’d like to welcome our audience back to Center Stage. I am Joe Cahill, I am the COO for the Project Management Institute and today we are visiting with our guest Iain Hamilton. In this podcast, Iain, the Head of Creative Industries for Highlands and Islands Enterprise, will be discussing leadership of creative projects and initiatives.

Iain is a senior leader who works with the Scottish Government Economic Development Agency. At the core of his work is a successful global project, XpoNorth. XpoNorth is a unique event with a focus on bringing together the creative and tech sectors to explore opportunities, look at trends and find new business opportunities. XpoNorth attracts delegates from around the world ranging from multinationals to micro businesses. As a result of Covid-19, it has transformed into a digital community with lessons to be learned for all projects.

So, Iain Hamilton, welcome to Center Stage.

IAIN HAMILTON

Thanks very much, Joe, and thanks very much for inviting me.

CAHILL

It’s our pleasure to have you. So I’d like to just dive in. Let’s talk about your work with the government. You are the Head of Creative Industries for Scottish Highlands and Islands and you work closely with that Scottish government. So what makes working a project with the government different?

HAMILTON

Well, it brings its own challenges and opportunities. I have to say there is a combination of the two that comes in in that. Obviously there are targets that we want to meet in order to support businesses and to encourage creative companies, but we also have targets and demands that come to us from the government, and part of the job is to deliver their economic strategy. So we’ve got two very different and very... different stakeholders with their own demands—the businesses we support and government itself.

CAHILL

Can you tell us about XpoNorth and how it started and what it’s doing these days?

HAMILTON

Sure. Initially I had been taken on to deliver support to creative industries as a sector by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. It was felt that because in the past we had always dealt with the sector mainly in a cultural sense, as an agency we were very lucky that we have community development and cultural development as well as the economic development side. So things had tended to come from that community end, and it was felt that there was a real business opportunity and that more could be done economically.

And when I came in, we were having a look around at how does the sector work, how do we make this work and function there. And also, as I mentioned, the fact that a government agency is not necessarily set up in a way that is going to make it easy to engage with all the micro businesses who create scale and knowledge through networks. And so their growing patterns tend to be a bit different and the standard support programs don’t always fit.

So what we identified was this idea of creating networks. And what seemed like a good idea was that, if we could create much larger networks that the businesses could tap into, it would create new opportunities and help them to grow. So that was the core thinking behind it.

And so we put together a year-round package of activity and then we looked at the conference itself, which to be honest was one of these things that we were thinking, right, what’s the best one to go to? How do we showcase the talent in the area? How do we get bigger companies and other companies to come to the Highlands and look at what’s going on? And for some reason we thought putting on our own event would be a good idea. And we certainly learned a lot of lessons from that notion but fortunately it seems to have come good now.

CAHILL

And do you plan to have one in 2021? I think I saw something on your website?

HAMILTON

Yes, we will have it in 2021 but it’s going to be online again. I think realistically... it’s June 16 and 17, the dates for it. I know the vaccine is coming through but we’re best one in the world, will we be able to get folks traveling, do we want to get folks traveling at that stage? I’m not sure that shunting lots of people through international airports is necessarily the best option at that time. And then you could always end up going into a lockdown at the last minute. So it seemed more sensible to just cut our losses and say it will be online.

CAHILL

Right. And it will be stable and predictable and people will know it’s going to be there, which is really important for having an event.

So I’ve seen this, that your XpoNorth has been a significant success. So can you offer your thoughts on how you measure the value of the program?

HAMILTON

Yeah, sure. Measurement, and I’m sure that anybody listening will have some sympathy on this one, is about the way that you measure returns on, well, any kind of project. And it becomes particularly difficult when you have the government measurements, which are directly around turnover, job creation, and they tend to be around turnover and job creation in an individual business. For the creative sector, you might create a lot of jobs and you might have a huge turnover coming through, but very often it’s going to be split between a lot of different businesses because of the way that they networked to come together to deliver a larger scale project.

So what we have spent a lot of time doing was looking at how other measurements could come in. So we are looking at profitability, we are looking at return on investment, also trying to find better ways of measuring the impact in the area so that it’s not just about how much each business is making and the direct growth you see there, but how is the overall network of local businesses growing. Because if you can see a growth in the local network, that creates more opportunities at the core of it before they start tapping into wider international networks.

But there’s also the impacts on place. So, raising the profile of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is also important as part of this, because again it just... it helps to sell products and services from the area, but it also just creates a wider interest that other businesses and communities will benefit from.

CAHILL

You just mentioned or we talked a little bit about the impact of Covid on XpoNorth specifically going forward into 2021. But certainly this year yourself, just like everybody else, was surprised by what we had to do in terms of making some changes and making some pivots in our businesses and in our events and so forth. What kind of challenges did you see for XpoNorth due to Covid-19 and what is the most, important thing for a leader to do when challenged during such a period that we’re in?

HAMILTON

Well, after that initial moment of blind panic going what do we do now, the most important bit I guess is actually just to look at what can we do? There is really no point considering why it isn’t... why we can’t do what we wanted to do. And it was to start looking at what would give the best possible solutions - one, for us to deliver the support but also, what could we offer to the businesses that we were engaging with. Because clearly a lot of their priorities have changed, just surviving this period, rather than necessarily growth or looking at some of the other wider projects they’d be looking at.

And I think we did have one advantage in this in that the trends in the creative sector had already been around moving to more online forums. The way that consumers, your audiences or your customers, are consuming content was changing anyway. And also we were seeing much more signs of companies coming together and shifting away from being a music business or a film business or a publisher, it’s time to look at content more widely and how that ties in with brands and all the different opportunities you could put together. So this idea almost of a new normal, we had actually moved into that space already. It was kind of here. Unfortunately, Covid just proved to be a bit more brutal speeding-up of that process. And so things that people had on the back burner and were looking to do suddenly took much greater priority.

So really we focused mainly on how could we create an equivalent experience for the conference, not an identical experience because just putting that online wasn’t going to work, but look at how we could offer something, and what the technology was that would best suit that. And the other one was to look at the wider program though the year, how could we best tie that in so that there was ways of following up the activity, particularly for us the idea of maintaining the networks. Because clearly showcasing stuff is great at the conference but a big chunk of it really is around giving people a context to meet.

And fortunately, as I said, I think we have been able to do that reasonably well. We set up an app so that there was actually the opportunity to directly, one to one, message people who were attending the conference. We were lucky and kept a really, I think, a good high level of speakers and individuals involved with it.

And in actual fact, it opened up the numbers more than we could have done physically. Normally we look at about a couple thousand people attending and they do, as you say, come from around the world. But we were up about seven and a half thousand. And the beauty is that content remains, so it’s growing all the time as people go back to have a look or new folks come in and check out the content that is there.

And that’s again been good for the overall program because it has allowed us to build up a really good archive of subjects, interviews, blogs, all sorts of content there that I hope will still be useful to the businesses. And a lot of it really was focused on how do you either make a little money just now to keep yourself going, or how do you prepare to reengage with your customer base? So a lot of the themes were maintained, it was more the delivery mechanism that changed.

CAHILL

And you’re saying the speed up of the trend was more of—I’m going to use my words - convergence of different disciplines and integration across the disciplines and people looking at the full experience, right, rather than at bits and pieces? Because we are seeing that in our business as well. There is a compression going on, which is a good thing, but it forces you to look outside of your expertise, if you will.

HAMILTON

Yes, absolutely. I mean fortunately, as I said, because we had taken this idea right from the very beginning of trying to build up networks and establish partnerships and things that would create a scale overall for the project we were in a good position to keep that moving. But I think you are absolutely right, that convergence is really important.

But I guess also it’s just the demand from consumers for an experience, for something that will really engage them. I wouldn’t want to go as far as to say the product doesn’t matter anymore, it does, clearly, but that experience of how the business is engaging with the consumers, how do they get their story out and how do you get people to buy into that messaging and make them feel involved or engaged with it in some form. That’s really the core of how things have been moving for a while now and I think that has become even more important because of Covid.

And certainly consumers have got new demands. They are expecting something different now and I can’t see that changing again as we come out of the pandemic.

CAHILL

It’s kind of interesting that some real basic principles are involved in what you just said. Like, just good old-fashioned storytelling, right? And how important... how that has always been important and how it’s finding a new place and an innovative way digitally. So I find that interesting as well.

HAMILTON

Yeah, it certainly is. And I have to say, it was one of those challenges that you can imagine walking into a government agency and saying actually one of the most important things we should pick up on is storytelling but... [laughter] It doesn’t automatically win favor as a kind of assumption that this is going to be something...

If you think back maybe in the past, meaning was allocated by products and things by Hollywood or by the big record companies. And technology means that much smaller companies now can do that themselves. They can allocate the meaning to their product or service in a way that would have been much harder for them to do at one time.

CAHILL

Let’s talk about that entertainment industry. One of the very exciting things about XpoNorth is it targets the leaders and practitioners in entertainment, whether it’s arts, writing, music, or even movies. So what are the challenges and opportunities of working projects in the entertainment industry?

HAMILTON

Well, there are the obvious ones that are general to the whole sector. Speaking apart from the fact it’s been a very difficult year and we know how bad it has been for so many folk, but if you look through, clearly the technology and that ability to engage with an audience has changed. And the price points have come down as well. So if you were looking at some kind of 3D experience or virtual reality, the cost of that would’ve been absolutely prohibitive at one time and the cost of things now have come down and there is more availability of companies that can do the work for you. There’s huge opportunities there.

But also, the actual demand for content has hugely grown. So even if you think about it just now, someone like Red Bull, who have their own Red Bull Channel, it’s online but it... effectively they have become a broadcaster. And we know that a lot of other companies are picking that up. So suddenly this increase in demand for content and often very specialized content has thrown up huge opportunities. The other part that again comes into it is this idea of provenance and authenticity. And it comes back to that storytelling idea. Again, there is a real demand for something that has a bit of heritage to it, something that has a real background story that you’re buying into more than just the product itself. And we are lucky in the Highlands and Islands, we’ve got more stories than you could shake a stick at. I mean that’s the one thing we are definitely not short of. So these do create exciting opportunities.

CAHILL

What qualities do you think are most useful for successful leadership today and how have these qualities changed throughout your career?

HAMILTON

I would say the most important thing that I have found over the last while, and certainly as a project itself, XpoNorth, is about flexibility and the ability to move quickly. I think that especially when you’re working with public sector agencies where you obviously have to be careful about where public money is being spent and all sorts of rules and regulations on that, but on the other hand you still have to be able to move at the speed that the businesses need to move at, and if you don’t have that flexibility to grab opportunities when you see them or to take a risk and try things, then I’m afraid not much happens.

I have certainly always been a great believer that if you believe something can be done you should try it. It may be that when you finish it will look very different to where you started but you kind of create luck by actively putting yourself in a place where you can get luck. You have to be out there to get it.

CAHILL

Yes, we call that agility at PMI. When we talk about agility, it is exactly that. Get going with something and make those adjustments because you do often, more often than not, end up with something you didn’t exactly plan on in the beginning that’s usually better.

HAMILTON

Yes, yeah. As long as it’s a good thing you’ve come out with that you didn’t plan on then it’s worth doing. But no, there is always that danger of really being bogged down in the planning and the discussion. And I am not suggesting there should be no planning, I’m certainly not suggesting that, but it’s just that you can plan for perfection and nothing happens. And I think that’s important.

And certainly for me this being flexible, it’s about how quickly you can move to grab opportunities. Because I think we should work the same as the businesses we’re trying to help. If we don’t grab opportunities and move in that way how can we expect them to?

CAHILL

Do you feel that over the years that that has just become much...? I guess it was always important but it’s actually more critical today than it was say 10 or 20 years ago?

HAMILTON

I think it is. Because the speed of change and the speed of opportunity that the technology brings… I mean, if you think back, you had access to a certain market and you could approach that one. Then it moves into the space where you see the start of social media coming in and suddenly there’ll be massive numbers of folk on a particular platform. Well that’s great because they can attract a huge number to the platform but they can also leave just as quickly and leave you high and dry.

So it’s about finding that ability to keep track of what’s going on and being able to shift as the trends move as well. So the speed of change and the speed with which people can move, that consumers can move, can catch you out if you’re not flexible enough yourself.

CAHILL

That is the truth. And it ties back to what you were talking about earlier, about having the right experiences. Because that is what attracts people and keeps them.

So as you see your projects and people in the audience here, their projects, being challenged more and more with uncertainties and complexities, what tools and methods and/or ideas do you find most useful for making decisions and planning in this new fast-paced world?

HAMILTON

To be honest, we do use various project management tools and digital methods of just keeping track of what folk are doing. But I’m afraid the most important one is still probably the most old fashioned of the lot, it’s just about having a good network of people that you trust and that you can speak to. And I have to say that, for me, that ability to access a wide range of interesting people or folk that I respect their judgement and be able to bounce ideas off them and if they go, “What on earth are you talking about?” then I know that’s unlikely to be a good option.

But I think that being able to sense-check your thinking is really important. And I think possibly that is one of the things the pandemic does cause a problem with, is that you may have had somebody in the office with you that you did that sense checking with. Not so easy to do. But on the other hand, a lot of the networks we would want to engage with, it was going to have to be online anyway, or by phone, you can’t do face to face all the time.

CAHILL

It’s funny, it goes back to basics. First principles - trust, collaboration, communication.

HAMILTON

I really wish I could come on and say that there was some magical new technology that I’d discovered or that we had something really clever. It is pretty straightforward in the sense that it’s just about... it is about building up those networks and having people that you trust around you and that you can speak to and share ideas with.

CAHILL

There is no doubt. And we find in our research and of course in our engagement with companies that these softer skills are the critical success factors. Not to downplay technology or technical skills but it really makes things special.

HAMILTON

Yeah. And the technology, it is fantastic what you can do and the ability to connect with people is great and it does make life easy. I mean certainly for us, it’s a lot easier to get somebody to come and to speak to some businesses or to talk at the conference or whatever that may be based in Philadelphia or New York or whatever, it’s easier to do that online than to physically bring them over to do it. So yes, there are definitely pluses there.

But I do think that the chance to meet face to face and to talk and to develop that relationship is also valuable as well. And certainly for my own part, one of the things that I found was the biggest ordeal in life was walking into a room full of strangers that I don’t know and having to wander around and make conversation and try and chat. And that I think was, personally I found was one of the hardest skills to try and develop. And that really was again about just watching folk that I admired that were good at that, looking at how they did it, and then setting myself challenges to go and match those and develop my own way of doing it.

CAHILL

I am in the same camp that you are in. It was a slow build, let’s put it that way, for me.

HAMILTON

It’s an ordeal. But again, what I would throw in is that for the overall year-round work, having the conference element at the core of it was actually a real plus because it gives you a context to talk to folk. It’s very easy to pick up a business card and then have no context to come back to that person. But the conference always provides the context. And I think again this idea of how we introduce businesses into these networks, again, it is about providing them with a context that allows them to make these links.

CAHILL

So we are touching a little bit here on some talent aspects of what you do, and obviously it’s a key part of your success to really attract, develop and collaborate with diverse talent from around the world. Many of your members are young, project-oriented professionals. What did you learn or what do you learn about ensuring the wellbeing and the engagement of your people?

HAMILTON

One of the biggest factors that always comes up on this is that this sector seems to attract, particularly for younger folks, is it attracts a level of passion and enthusiasm that can be quite overpowering. And that actually sometimes you have to force people to take breaks and say you really need to just have a pause.

And I think sometimes in the advice that we are giving out, or when we’re offering support to the businesses, sometimes that is part of it, is that this is just too big. You need to step back. We try to be as flexible as possible in the working just to make sure that folk can go and deal with issues at home or getting the kids to school or whatever it is that they have going on, and make sure that you have some flexibly in the working practices. And basically as long as the job is done when we need it, we should be… we try to be as flexible as we can through the course of it.

CAHILL

Let’s talk about the global aspects of your program. Obviously, the program has large local components but there’s global components. You need to focus on the value for Scotland, the Highlands, and also for international partners. So how do you balance the need, provide value and benefits to such a diverse group in a vast community?

HAMILTON

I think this was again something that has developed over time because when we initially got going and we were talking to partners who are working at a very high level, folk are working in much larger companies and things, and we’re looking at how we can get them to come in and provide some support and encouragement to the businesses we’re working with, or to work with them directly.

And there is always a tendency to think well, they’re big and successful, why would they be interested in what we have to offer? And it took a bit of time to really understand what it was, the value that they saw in engaging with us. One of them was around the fact that... back to this idea of the storytelling... is that there are some great stories, some great new products, there’s services, there’s music, there’s a taste and a color and smell and feel to the Highlands and Islands that no matter how big a company you are, you can’t replicate the same way if you don’t have that connection.

And so we actually found that we were offering something a bit different to the companies. And some of the folk we’ve worked with, we’ve worked with for maybe a decade now and they keep coming back to be involved and they keep engaging with us. And again, it’s just about developing trust that what we can offer does have some value to the partners that we are trying to bring in when certainly we can clearly see what their value is to us.

CAHILL

Right. And over time you get closer and closer to each other’s needs as they evolve and things start happening.

HAMILTON

For us there is a year-round program of activity. We want folk doing stuff all year round, but the conference itself gives a context to bring people in and to start those conversations. While there is a lot of business done at the conference, there’s a lot of things have come off the back of it. I think a big part of it has really been about giving that context for us to meet potential partners and to really get a chance to get to know them and see how we can effectively work together.

CAHILL

So can you share with us some of the lessons learned from navigating this diverse stakeholder base, and how you have actually benefited from the collaboration of these diverse cultures?

HAMILTON

There is a small production company based in a very rural part in the southwest of our patch, and the chap that runs it, he’s got a very well established background as a songwriter and a music producer, but it’s still a fairly small-scale business. But he also manages acts that are coming through and he has written, as well as his own performances, but he has written for folk like Rod Stewart, he’s also done some stuff for Vodaphone and others. So a good track record.

But what we have found is that linking him up where he’s now gone into partnership with a much larger multinational company, IE Music... And what happens now is that he actually accesses a lot of their infrastructure. So they send artists to him to record, they’ll work with him on songwriting, he will also do co-writes with artists they’re working with. But also the artists that he’s managing and developing get access to their infrastructure, so immediately it just gets them to a market level much faster and he’s able to take them to market much faster. And he doesn’t have to shift from his rural location to be able to do that.

And another good example I think that we’re just starting to see the returns for… We have one of the fabulous Gaelic singers in the area, sings traditional music, she has developed... I’m trying to remember her streaming figures, I think it’s 98 million streams on Spotify. And again, closed down during Covid because her business was very much focused on live performance, which was great and did phenomenally well in that.

But again it was being able to hook her up with people who could help, looking at how do you use the crowd economy, how do you exploit that more effectively, create that engagement to start deriving meaningful engagement with customers. And also to start looking at how can you synch music to film and TV, what’s the publishing on this, are there other opportunities there. And actually just to start exploring wider ways of working. So we’ve got her hooked up at the moment talking to various synch agents who are looking at, as I said, film, TV, games and things.

Or another person that’s been very supportive and helpful was Micheal Flaherty. He was the cofounder of Walden Media, runs another company now, Epiphany Labs. And again, just having access to people like that who can give you advice, hints on who you should be talking to, introduce you to people, and also who have been very good about giving their time to give advice and to talk to the businesses as well.

And again, just sometimes getting that stamp of approval from one of these contacts makes a huge difference to us in terms of meeting other people.

CAHILL

Let’s touch on your own personal outlook going forward here. What are your dreams, ambitions, even aspirations for contributing to the future of work, new ways of working and society itself?

HAMILTON

Well there’s a few things that I’m really keen to do, obviously, there’s various projects and things we’re working on. One of them that I am really keen to see developed is the work that we’re doing with students and with young people coming through to make sure that they have the skills that are gonna be needed to fill the skills gaps that will inevitably appear in the area with more and more digital activity. But overall, I look at somewhere like the Scandinavian countries and think what an amazing job they have done in terms of impacting on all aspects of people’s lives. So you have hygge, the mindfulness thing coming from Denmark, or you have the Scandi-noir both in publishing and the detective series that you get on TV and the films that are coming through. Sweden has had a huge impact on the music industry. There’s just the ability of somewhere like Iceland to sell everything from sagas to Bjork.

And you look at how they have managed to pull all that together, and that place and perception of the place they come from and the lifestyle and everything plays such an important part. Design, all of these elements come in. And really what I want to do is to put the Highlands and Islands in that space, so that people start to look to the Highlands and Islands for far more than they would’ve ever anticipated and that this will go beyond creative industries. It is very much about that.

CAHILL

Let me ask you another one, how do you stay engaged and motivated these days, or any days for that matter?

HAMILTON

Staying engaged gets harder and harder in the sense that the more that you develop networks the more people that you’re engaged with, that then it becomes harder and harder to do. And I’ve got to say that, and again, this is where I’ve been really lucky, that the people that I work with are all really great. I really trust their opinions, I trust their judgements, and they all have great skills for the different things that they cover. And one thing that I had also to learn was that I don’t have to be involved in everything.

The other thing is though, on the motivation, it’s constantly there’s new stuff coming up and there’s new opportunities and the businesses that we work with and the people that we work with are always coming up with new products, services, new ideas that it’s hard not to get excited about this.

My own background is in music so I started with a passion in that and, as I said, I worked through. And again, I’ve had to learn a lot as we’ve gone through about the sectors as well as my own role in this, but when you start to learn more about design and film and television, games, all this stuff, it’s all just... there is so much interesting stuff there that it’s hard not to be motivated, to really push to do more.

CAHILL

I’m very envious of your position. Very good stuff. So, Iain Hamilton, thank you so much. You’ve helped me and the audience understand many different concepts today, particularly discussions around networking, the importance of the network, context and content.

We talked about storytelling and trust. I think I’ve felt those themes throughout the conversation. And then flexibility I think was at the heart of one of the discussions we had, that we have to remain flexible and agile in order to work through the environment we’re in but, more importantly, find opportunities. So thank you again and thank you for your time and insight. I look forward to working with you in the future.