An introduction to meaningful networking events
- September 17, 2018
Shortly before I came to work at Stormz, I was involved in promoting innovative practices in the Renault Creative People Lab. Our goal wasn’t to make ideas flow and circulate more freely, but to empower and enable everyone, especially project managers, to navigate easily and find their way in structures as complex and multi-layered as, for instance, the Technocentre. We were, to put it bluntly, matchmakers, in charge of introducing the project leaders to THE decision-maker who’ll believe in him or THE co-worker who’ll be able to teach him the ins and outs he needs to know in order to bring his project to completion.
Current wisdom would like us to believe that, in order to foster innovation and break down traditional barriers, we should be focusing on facilitating the circulation of ideas and give the floor to everyone so they could speak their mind as freely as possible. But this approach overlooks one fundamental fact: ideas do not drive projects forward, people do. Not only must we give a safe space for people to express their opinion, but we should also provide them with the map that will show them where to find the people ready to hear and help them out.
This is where the networking kicks in: to create connections, form new bonds and build entire networks between individuals of the same or of different professional circles. Don’t be fooled: there’s nothing remotely idealistic or abstract about it: the core purpose of networking is purely operational. People must get to know each other, they have to learn on which door to knock, which corridor to take and which deadlocks to avoid so they can gain access to those who will be able - and willing - to support them and help them turn their project into a reality. Those people will, above anything else, provide them with the opportunities, decisions, knowledge and necessary skills for the successful completion of their project.
We must always bear in mind that the ultimate goal is to increase the mutual understanding between members of a team. MIT researchers demonstrated that the most creative groups are those whose members showed the strongest empathy towards one another: if every member of the team knows and understands what the others are saying and implying, everyone will be able to carry and support their peers’ ideas as if they were their own, without ever betraying their original purpose or goal. Our ability to understand our colleagues’ jargon and vernacular, our aptitude to grasp their point of view and opinion are absolutely critical for the successful development of collective projects. The core purpose of this approach is to be able to understand precisely what each and everyone can bring to the table, in which conditions, and how.
The shortcomings of today’s networking
So how, exactly, can networking events fulfill that goal? Could they really create extensive networks and strengthen mutual relationships to make them more operational? Today, cocktails and other speed-meetings are usually more reminiscent of what I like to call “pitch contests”: in other words, events where eager participants arrive, equipped with the presentation they learned by heart and anxious to reel it off to as many people as possible. In such cases, people listen to the sound of their own voice for hours on end, but no one truly discusses with one another. This can sometimes turn into rather absurd, if not tragic situations, where two individuals dutifully recite their own pitches without listening to each other, with as much interaction as two trains going the opposite way and looking at each other pass on their respective tracks and fade away in the distance. No common goal or purpose, no exchange of ideas or negotiation, no mutual empathy or understanding. It’s fairly simple: if you know what you’re going to say before the other one finished talking, you can come to the conclusion that you haven’t really been listening.
Sure, maybe you did listen to what he had to say, maybe you did get his business card, but did you truly hear him? What did you learn that you couldn’t have found on his official website or social media profile? That’s also why it’s important not to get stuck in small talk for too long. Small talk is, undoubtedly, incredibly useful to start up a conversation; but you should quickly move out of this initial ice-breaking stage to bring the conversation to another, deeper level. Did you understand the cause that person is fighting for? What is his true objective? Are you familiar with his personal worldview?
Even the so-called “team-building” sessions, networking situations designed to strengthen relationships or repair broken bonds between co-workers, are often organized in the most superficial way. Too often is it reduced to a frivolous distraction where the only tangible outcome is people realising that his or her colleagues can actually be “pretty nice” outside of the stressful, everyday office life. But true goal of team-building, as its name pretty clearly indicates, is to build an efficient and operational team. The objective is not to rub people up the right way, but to improve how a group operates and enhance its capabilities. Sure, this might also strengthen “informal” (in reality, pretty formalized) relationships between co-workers and give them the opportunity to relax a bit along the way. But come on, let’s be honest. Smiling to one’s boss during a football game can have a pretty sour aftertaste when he or she is constantly bringing you down and criticizing you in the office, and vice-versa.
Overly prepared pitch contests will only reveal what should have been already obvious and leaves no space to creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Team-building, meanwhile, only seeks to foster nicely enjoyable emotions and will, more often than not, amount to mere distractions designed to avoid dealing with a team’s true problems. People taking part in such activities will, in absolutely no way, come out of it more informed or knowledgeable about who possesses what skill or connection prone to help him for a given project. So the question remains: how can we foster, strengthen and improve relationships through which knowledge, mutual favours and know-how circulate freely?
Strong bonds, a bridge to success
The best way to do so is to simulate an express collaboration and foster a debate as powerful and far-reaching as can be. What better way than organizing good old playful activities? Contrary to what most people think, this doesn’t in any way contradict what I’ve said before: yes, the networking’s goal is instantly operational, down to earth, practical. But the means, dynamics and settings on which it is based are often rooted in playful activities, gaming features and relaxing atmosphere.
Platon used to say that we could learn more about someone by playing one hour with him than through a lifetime of encounters. And he’s right: games reveal often-concealed personality traits by faking and simulating real-life and extreme situations. However, it’s up to us to be sufficiently alert to notice these giveaways and interpret those signs accurately. Just as active listening is key to a meaningful discussion, awareness and empathy are fundamental pillars of any collaborative challenge.
To strengthen personal bonds and build a successful team, we must give people the opportunity to cross paths with one another and organize networking activities worthy of the name where they’ll truly get to know each other. In other words, participants have to be able to mix and mingle to plant the seeds of future collaborations and joint-ventures - as quickly and as meaningfully as possible.
In the old days, many dances were designed to foster new relationships between two highly distinct and separate casts: young men and young women. Those dances, including the famous polka, would give people the chance to review and assess their relations and check one’s bearing, clothing, manners, gestures but also, more mundanely, his personal hygiene. Networking must have the same approach: a perfectly choreographed activity, that goes straight to the point, tests a number of combinations in record-time, double-checks the validity of first impressions and assumptions and, in the end, sees if there’s any chemistry or not.
Many companies have to rebuild and rearrange teams on a daily basis following their different projects and missions, and thus form new bonds and relationships able to fulfill those new professional requirements. This never-ending reorganisation can be made much easier if the quality of existing relationships are regularly nourished and improved through conscious networking activities. Stormz is working on it. How about you?