There’s a lot at stake at large group events. There’s pressure to deliver against important strategic objectives, a significant budget spend and months of planning. Not to mention hundreds of hours spent out of the office for everyone involved.
Whether the event is internal facing, for example a corporate conference for a large international team, or external facing, like a launch to a company’s top clients, it’s crucial to focus clearly on one key factor that will determine its ultimate success or failure: human behaviour.
Everyone attending an event will form a slightly different impression of it. They only see things from their own perspective. Think of an event and everything that's happening at each moment. There's so much going on – all the different people and their individual personalities, the details of the venue, the event’s content and objectives – everyone present will interpret and react to all this in their own unique way.
Think of a recent event you attended. Your experience of it will be different from every other person who was there, because each of us have a different interpretation of the world.
So what to do about it? How can we design our events so that every attendee goes away thinking exactly the same thing? We can’t of course. What we can do instead is design events that are mindful of human behaviour, and incorporate the right elements to ensure a positive experience for as many of them as possible.
Let’s look at the internal corporate event scenario.
When a corporate group comes together there are inevitably a number of objectives, which may be focused on the business or the team itself. An event might be focused on launching and embedding the company’s strategic vision to employees, to engage and inform team members or build unity and morale. Or they might be aimed at generating ideas and goals for the company to focus on.
At their heart, many corporate group events are about bringing people together, to help individuals engage in something greater, to feel a connection with the wider organisation. There’s a focus on collaboration, sharing challenges and celebrating successes. From a business point of view these events are important because they foster engagement and encourage alignment to corporate goals and values.
From an individual human perspective there are many other elements to consider. For the team leader there’s an opportunity to communicate their vision and see everyone’s reaction and, hopefully, their agreement and buy-in. They may want to use the event to cement their position and exert their authority. On the other hand, they may feel isolated and under pressure – there’s a lot riding on this event, the leader hasn’t met many of the more remote team members before, and is worried about their morale at a difficult time for the company. It’s important to consider these potential elements when planning the structure and content of the event.
Team members would ideally get a number of different things from such an event. A great outcome from their perspective might be to secure valuable one-on-one time with a leader they only see once a year. They might be looking for recognition, assurance or support, or they might want to air a grievance or question a strategic decision. They might not be sure that they will even get airtime with the leader amongst everything else that’s going on.
Some individuals find life difficult at these events. More introvert in nature, they find the prospect of sitting in a large conference room with dozens of unfamiliar faces unnerving, and the idea of “networking breaks” bring them out in a cold sweat. On the other hand they really value the quiet reflection time offered at the end of some of the plenary sessions.
The extroverts may seem to thrive more, but even they can be quietened by the prospect of making a comment in front of the whole group in an idea-sharing session or a Q&A. They might feel pressured to “perform” and stand out amongst their peers. They might put forward an idea and immediately regret speaking out – leading them to go quiet for the rest of the day.
Some junior leaders may be called upon to take part in the presentations, and because they might feel uncomfortable with public speaking, might over-plan their talks so they sound wooden and contrived. They might feel unable to play a full part in other sessions because they are so consumed by the prospect of their upcoming spot on stage.
One often overlooked element is that it’s important to build in enough personal time into multi-day corporate events. I’m not just talking about giving delegates time to check and respond to emails during breaks. At a conference, away from home, everyone is on unfamiliar territory. Those with partners may be keen to phone home to catch up on their spouse’s day. Those with children might try and fit in a Skype call before bedtime stories.
Most people benefit from a little downtime too. Corporate conferences can be pretty tiring – meeting new people takes more effort and attention, and in an environment with senior leaders present, people might feel more under pressure than usual. Even just taking people away from the day-to-day causes them to expend more mental effort. They might worry about making the right impression, and might have earmarked the occasion as a rare opportunity to shine in front of big hitters. All this can cause people stress and fatigue.
So make sure there is enough down-time built into a multi-day event for people to just be on their own for enough time to decompress and take time for their personal life. Take away any pressure to meet in the bar for drinks between the conference and dinner – even though these may be marked ‘optional’, people may feel awkward about missing out. Better to leave completely free periods where they can truly disengage and refresh.
Generally people like to feel like they belong, and to put faces to names – often with people they’ve only ever met over email or conference call. Removing any pressure, or structure, or time constraints, works well here – simply by engaging in relaxed, unhurried conversations they will share problems and solutions and find common ground. They’ll come away with a shared context of the work they do and feel part of one team and culture.
Running a successful event is a big challenge. But if you focus on getting a few basic things right, cater for the range of personalities attending, and set the right tone and pace, you are much more likely to create engagement, learning and action.