Dinner with a Stranger – A Design Pattern for Conferences & Open Spaces

Last year, while studying the program of Agile 2011 I read about “Dinner with a Stranger” for the first time:

Socializing and networking are an integral part of Agile2011. If you’ll be attending Agile2011 alone, make sure to stop by the registration desk and sign up for “Dinner with a Stranger” on Tuesday, August 9th. Just add your name to one of the sign-up sheets with the names of nearby restaurants and grab your “I’m a stranger” ribbon. Later that night, put it on and meet your fellow participants for dinner and great conversation.

Most excellent idea! I wouldn’t limit it to those “attending alone”, though. It’s when I’m with a group that I have difficulty meeting someone new. When I’m alone, I meet new people because I more or less have to. But in a group I get all my information and communication needs fulfilled without stepping out of my comfort zone and reaching out to a stranger.

Put yourself up for Dinner with a Stranger

In the end I did not attend Agile 2011 and planned for ALE 2011 instead. I suggested “Dinner with a stranger” to the organizers and thankfully Marc Clemens teamed up with me. He researched restaurants and made reservations. I spent a weekend creating info flyers for each of the restaurants.

When the conference came, we put up 4 pin boards and watched the participants sign up to the table they knew the least people on.

I went to a Bavarian restaurant and got to know very nice and interesting people. From what I’ve heard it was a splendid evening for all groups. The dinner had achieved its goal:

Dinner with a Stranger encouraged people to speak to new people. Chris Matts

Lately it occured to me that it would make a great design pattern. (Design patterns describe recurring solutions for common problems.) There already exist some candidate patterns for open spaces. The following pattern could be an addition:

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Dinner with a stranger

– A candidate pattern for pattern languages about organizing conferences, open spaces or other networking events –

Problem:
At networking events such as conferences, participants usually want to get to know other people. But initiating contact is not easy for everyone. Even less so if they come with an existing group.

Proposed Solution:
Seat people next to someone they don’t know yet for dinner (or lunch). Eating together is an excellent opportunity to talk to others and bond.

Reserve sufficiently many tables at restaurants near the conference venue. Choose restaurants with differing price levels so that no one needs to opt out for financial reasons.

Prepare information such as type of food, address & directions, prices for a main dish, etc. for each restaurant. Post the information + sign up sheets in a frequented area.

Announce the time of the event. Invite everyone to sign up for one of the seats. Only rule: Pick the table you know the least people on.

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Actually it doesn’t even have to be a networking event. My company sponsors lunch for groups of 6 colleagues from different departments every other week, so that people from different departments get to know each other better. And Google Munich has a script that invites randomly grouped employees to lunch each week. That’s the same underlying idea.

So, I’m fairly certain, this is a robust pattern. Big thanks to Marc for liking the suggestion and helping it come to life – It was a privilege!

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