Scott Belsky, Behance Head and Adobe VP of Products/Community, once said, “Sharing is the new networking. Fewer cocktail conversations, more sharing of code, ideas, and stuff that breeds collaboration.” Those words have stuck with me; I’m not sure why. After all, I enjoy a good beer, socializing with industry peers, and meeting new people. However, when I look out at the networking event landscape, I see few opportunities to “do” as opposed to just network for the sake of networking. Yes, there are events like Overnight Website Challenge and Hack for MN. Both are excellent events, but often too intense for the faint of heart—and happen only once or twice a year. Creative Mornings and TEDx talks are great occasions to explore ideas in person if you’re able to attend. But the focus of these and other dialogs isn’t necessarily on tangible execution in the context of networking.
Why is this even an issue? In an economic environment where clients are demanding innovative strategies with a positive ROI, agency partners and in-house teams are asked to do more with less—not to mention keep up with technology changes. Solutions are complex and challenging to maintain, yet expected to be more efficient. Traditional networking events and related professional resources are increasingly not enough. Agencies and companies need to collaborate more effectively and individuals must continually expand their skill sets. To that end, here are three event formats I’ve either attended, participated in, or hosted that I recommend exploring as our industry evolves.
The first format is the traditional hackathon or “maker jam session” made famous by Facebook and Google. Hackathons are best suited for technical folks, specifically the doers who get their hands dirty: developers, designers, UXers, information architects, etc. Typically, they're held weekly during off-business hours. The mood is usually low-key as participants in the small group rock out on whatever passion or side project they are executing at the time. I’ve been to larger, structured, multi-day hackathons with the goal of demo-ing a working, minimally viable product on the final day. I’ve also attended and hosted hackathons that feel more like regular meet-ups. Less intense and more conversational, in my opinion they’re more conducive to the kind of knowledge exchange and sharing of ideas, processes, and workarounds needed to keep pace with today’s rapidly evolving technology. No PowerPoint, no speaker—just unproven ideas, talented participants, and most importantly, collaboration.
Strategy for Good
The second hands-on networking format is strategy focused. The model I’ve found most rewarding is Strategy for Good, a Saturday morning series hosted by Paul Isakson and Emilie Hitch. The format pairs the know-how of experienced strategists with nonprofits and less-experienced professionals who ordinarily would not have access to high-caliber talent. These bi-monthly events included brief presentations followed by small team exercises designed to help the nonprofit think through a specific challenge to unearth actionable solutions. Aki Spicer and Kate Sieck were among the presenters at the session I attended. My breakout group was tasked with developing alternative revenue streams for a private school whose enrollment numbers dwindled in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crisis. Our discussion addressed how the school could adjust to the new economic environment without compromising the quality of its services. Clearly a complex issue, by the end of the session the school’s representative left with a set of relevant strategies to implement.
Hosted Design-thinking Experiences
The third format, which I think holds the most potential, is a hybrid of the first two, again focused on hands-on execution. By combining rapid ideation and implementation, participants are able to experience true cross-functional collaboration, learn new methods of generating solutions by doing, and continue to develop professionally—while working on an actual challenge for what could ultimately become a client at the point of execution. An agency I admire and with which I’ve collaborated in the past, Knock Inc, participates in these types of events. Their work quality and culture contribute heavily to the results. For example, Knock participated in an ideation session for Rock Star Supply Co., now Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute. The full-day Saturday event was a hosted design-thinking experience at CoCo Uptown and included assorted individuals passionate about the nonprofit’s mission. Integrated teams of attendees developed strategies to inform their fundraising process, new branding and positioning, and volunteer recruitment. Exercises included going through the learning experience the Institute would provide to students. Participants then broke into small facilitated groups, whiteboarding solutions to the Institute's most immediate challenges. Findings were presented to the larger group for additional feedback, then carefully captured for execution.
So, what is the real opportunity here for networking events? First and foremost, all parties benefit. Beyond the traditional grip-and-grin, here’s-my-elevator-pitch style of networking, attendees actually get to demonstrate what they do and how they think while collaborating in cross-functional teams. While lending their skills and co-creating, individual participants can visibly contribute to the communities they call home. Agency and client-side employers can collectively nurture their talent pools while investing in their staff with the gift of time. Nonprofit goals are met as projects are seen through to completion with non-billable hours. The list goes on.
Now, what is the cost of producing hands-on networking? Obviously, the simpler the format (especially the hackathon), the less prep time and expense involved for the volunteer organizers. In reality, the details of selecting and coordinating with a nonprofit to benefit from the hands-on activity, arranging the event logistics, finding venue and refreshment sponsors, establishing a registration process, and marketing the event are all similar requirements to traditional networking programs.
The real difference is evident when people show up for hands-on networking. Instead of schmoozing for the sake of schmoozing, they build relationships through collaboration—which, according to Joshua Klein’s 99U presentation, is a better way build one’s network. I couldn’t agree more.