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Planning Social Events: Leadership and Organization in the Wild

A friend and I were complaining about organizing social events at work the other day. It perplexed me for a second: we are both product managers, we have the basic leadership and organizational skills to perform at work, but we both found planning social events very challenging.

Why is that?

The process for planning both a dinner and a meeting is the same:

  1. You start with an agenda AKA the reason to get together.
  2. You set a time and book a place.
  3. You put together a guest list and you invite them.
  4. You follow-up to make sure your guests accept, move around the event to accommodate key stakeholders if you have to.
  5. At the event, as an organizer, you make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity to participate.

And the list ends there.

Now the differences are fairly nuance, but the main one is that: at work, you are planning in a closed environment; for social events, you are operating in a completely open and unpredictable space called The Real World.

Let’s look at how each step of the above process can be more difficult for a social event than a meeting:

  1. There is rarely a set agenda for social events. The common one being “we haven’t seen each other, let’s catch up.” It’s a non-urgent agenda that would usually fall lowest on your guest’s priorities.
  2. You think you made a reservation, but the restaurant has no requirement to honor it other than courtesy. Meeting rooms in the office, on the other hand, never go back on a reservation.
  3. You think you invited everyone, but last minute, someone will bring a friend. Suddenly the venue you booked isn’t big enough, back to step #2…
  4. This part really depends on the people you socialize with. In a big city like NYC, where everyone has lots of events and multiple events going on at any given time, flaking is the norm. People who say “yes” probably only mean it 50% of time. A common RSVP response is: “yes, I’ll probably be there if I’m not going to be out of town!” Sounds like a weather report, right?
  5. Equal opportunity is rarely the case in a social event. Some people are social butterflies and some are wallflowers. Get two of them at the same event and they seem almost like first and second class citizens. As an organizer, it’s your job to make sure everyone is enjoying themselves and no one is left out.

There you have it, mystery solved. Planning social events can suck from time-to-time, but once you are able to navigate through the hazards, seeing the people from your various social circles mingle in the same room is a reward in itself.