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Last week, Akvo gathered on the Dutch coast in a town called Noordwijk, for what I maintain is the most important meeting we have – the one where everyone comes together in one place. It’s hard to do – it’s expensive to do – because we are all scattered around the world. It would be easy for someone who doesn’t understand to say “well we don’t need to fly in that software developer” or “well they’re quite junior / new and we can’t afford to have them here” or “we’re not sure about that new group yet – maybe not this time”. But it’s really important that it includes everyone.

Photo: The Akvo team. Noordwijk, Netherlands. Tuesday 9 September 2014. By Loïc Sans.

As an event it was a complete success. Like anything really good, that was because of a combination of factors. First, getting everyone to a venue that wasn’t the Amsterdam office, and with everyone staying over, meant the Dutch team could really connect on an even footing with everyone visiting. The beach location was lovely. Noordwijk is a very interesting place – curiously genteel was the label myself and @ruarcc settled upon – that felt very safe and clean and historic. It wasn’t cold – in fact it was quite warm and bright. People went surfing, swimming or to beach bars in their spare time. @lindadutches even ran a morning yoga class. I had some kind of beach party late every night for four nights in a row (the Tuesday night one was a particular triumph). The hotel we stayed in – the Zonne – was a really nice size for us and very friendly. I loved the nice old dog pottering about between the steps, reception and the kitchen. The main entertaining space was a great size for the group, which was just over 50 people. The meeting spaces downstairs were functional. The cosy bar felt strangely American and was run by Geneviève, an impossibly cool Dutch rock chick. The garden out back was really nice, hosting things including the Comms Crash! Course, a barbecue and the inaugural gatherings of what will be known henceforth as the Amitangshu Acharya Whiskey Club. And beyond the garden were some tennis courts where loads of people got to play (or in my case do my Wimbledon ball-boy thing).

A structure that worked

The other key strengths came from the way the agenda was structured. As I mentioned in my pre-event blog we avoided “top-down” presentations, instead asking people to present 10-minute (en)lightning talks – 22 in total. These worked incredibly well. I really appreciated @SvHeukelum and @kasperbrandt being firm and keeping everyone to time. By the end we were so used to these ten minute slots that they actually felt quite long – not rushed at all. One really important thing is that if you attended Akvo Team Week 2014, you got to watch all the lightning talks. There is no ifs and buts on that. So right now, everyone is on the same page. This is very powerful. We also had a range of 40 minute workshops, all of which felt like a nice spacious environment to expand on key themes in. The agenda also had plenty of space for people to spend time together doing different things in small groups informally – a vital aspect of the week.

I also thought it was great that everyone went by bus up to Amsterdam on Thursday to spend the day in the Akvo Amsterdam office. It’s a really great space and it was amazing to see the whole team get absorbed into it, and watch the wifi hold up and everyone find a spot to work or talk. I’m so glad we weren’t there more than a day – but three days of Noordwijk and one in Amsterdam was a great combination.

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“Akvonauts seeing the future” by Thomas Bjelkeman. Adrian Collier and Joyce Kent, Noordwijk, Netherlands, Tuesday 9 September 2014.

There are so many things I can’t cover here, but I’ll mention one more – the “Foxhunting” adventure on Wednesday afternoon. Last year, Stefan and Laura amazed us with a hilarious pub quiz (a concept built on capably this year by @muloem and @kasperbrandt actually). But their ability to work together on event formats hit new heights this year as they despatched us in small groups around the locality, with clues and envelopes and a requirement to take selfies, engage with the locals and post everything via WhatsApp, through which they provided instructions. My group had a brilliant time together and the photos from all the groups were fantastic fun – here are the photos everyone submitted on the trail. I think everyone learned more about each other and learned how to navigate an environment together. This wasn’t a tedious team building outing – it was artfully done and huge fun.

A few years ago, any time Akvo had a team meeting, I was the one who took most (often all) of the photographs and shared them online – like this one in August 2009. At the time, this was quite exciting for me. But I’ll tell you it’s far more exciting to see everyone – more than 50 people – involved in posting photos and sharing their stories. I can’t begin to describe the breadth and depth of the week. I was just really proud to be part of it.

Back in May, I had joked about how nice it would be “If Akvo Team Week Was A Festival, In A Field”. I even drew a sketch and posted it to Flickr. At the time, I thought we were far from being able to achieve that kind of open, participatory, flexible, devolved atmosphere and find an environment where we could play that out. But I was wrong. Akvo Team Week 2014 was a festival, by a beach. And it was our best yet.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo, and the communications director.

I’m going to update this post with links to any content anyone wants me to share. Or they should feel free to add it in the comments below. Or they can write their own reviews on the blog, too – that would be fun.