Creating opportunities for connection
The wind blows clouds ragged above stands straining under the weight of a full house. All eyes are on the track, where the race is down to two.
Slowly — laboriously — Mr Mcguigan takes the lead down the outside, causing a group of middle-aged ladies in fascinators to lose their collective minds. There’s shrieking; there’s hugging. Cheap bubbles are spilling from plastic glasses.
The noise reaches fever pitch. Hands are pounding on bleachers to the tempo of feet striking the track. I’m on my feet — everyone's on their feet — as the two rivals race neck-a-neck, mere inches from the finish. With a final burst, Last Chance crosses the line… and ingloriously plunges three feet into a bucket.
At this stage, it seems pertinent to mention that Mr Mcguigan and Last Chance are both yabbies†, and the ‘track’ is a sloped timber board under a marquee pitched outside the Moonie Sports Club. The people, however, are exactly what you might imagine at an event of this nature — an unlikely potpourri of country and city folk, as diverse a group as you’ll find, yet united for one evening in mutual appreciation of beer; crustaceans; and good, honest, raucous behaviour.
Organisations talk big about diversity and collaboration, but here, where jeaned and booted country boys, Japanese backpackers, big city businessmen and an elderly lady in pearls sway arm-in-arm, it appears there’s still a lot we could learn.
In five years sponsorship of the Clawfield Cup, a staple at the Moonie Yabbie Races, I’ve never given much thought to this rural oddity. But safely ensconced in the highest corner of the timber bleachers with a Murakami novel and tin of Great Northern, I finally saw it for what it really is — the perfect environment for people to connect.
And that, friends, is no small thing.
We’re all seeking love and belonging. These are needs almost as fundamental as air, water and caffeine. And as technology and modern life compound social isolation and loneliness, we’re increasingly craving excuses for connection.
Unfortunately, organisations don’t always get this right.
Annual summits stuff everyone into dark auditoriums for several hours assault by keynote speaker, followed by an hour of peer-to-peer networking. Learning and development sessions drag people resentfully from their work, confine them in sensory-deprivation chambers and subject them to several hundred Powerpoint slides.
But you can’t just book a meeting room, send an email requesting mandatory attendance, and expect a bunch of people to turn up and bring the fire. It doesn’t work that way.
We need to create the right opportunities for connection, then let people do the rest naturally.
Create a focus
Hot tip: the focus should never be collaboration, innovation or networking. Yes, that’s why we’re doing it, and they’re all perfectly reasonable and desirable objectives. But they hardly inspire scintillating discussion.
Instead, we need to create a talking point — a place to begin conversations.
At the Moonie Yabbie Races almost every conversation began with ‘how’s your yabbie goin’’ or ‘bloody sleepy lot this year’; talk of who’d stayed on the bucking yabbie longest or who had the most ridiculous yabbie-themed fascinator.
It didn’t matter whether you knew each other, where you were from, whether you drove a ute with a Southern Cross decal or a Kombi stickered with ‘Magic Happens’ — there was a commonality that made starting a conversation easy.
Design the experience
A fluoro-lit meeting room with a flipchart and a projector is not an experience — it’s a punish. If we want real connection, we need to invest effort into designing the right experience.
How does the experience begin? Does it inspire curiosity and stoke anticipation? Then, what journey do we take people on? How do we want them to feel? How does it meet and exceed their expectations? How does it end, and how do we follow-up?
A great shared experience inspires the right conversations and connection needed to reach a great outcome.
Shape the environment
Some environments are suited to connection. Others, not so much. We need to consider where we bring people together and the impact those spaces have on us.
Are common areas designed to maximise connection? For inspiration, look no further than the humble lunchroom — host to more great conversation than any other. Connecting over meals goes as far back in human history as caves, campfires, and fillet of bison.
Then there’s the important events: the programs, workshops, and summits.
While the everyday interactions are important, these are the big ones — the opportunities to really make a difference. Yet organisations often default to the same tired environments. Surely there’s no crazier notion than putting people back in the same meeting room we used earlier to discuss the budget, and expecting an hour of earth-shaking innovation.
When we want people to think and connect in a different way, the space plays important role in cognitive framing.
We can change people’s experience of an existing space through activities, collateral or reconfiguration. Or we can change locations entirely. Would an innovation session be better held in a park, cafe, bar, or as a supper club? Would the annual summit be more inspiring delivered as a festival, sporting event, or in a nightclub?
When you consider a yabbie race can bridge cultural, national and socio-economic divides, perhaps these ideas aren’t so far-fetched.
† An Australian freshwater crayfish. Delightful with cocktail sauce.