Moving to a “wartime” forum footing

Earlier generations remember where they were during the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, and 9/11.  All of us will remember the COVID-19 Pandemic.  These extraordinary times call for new modes of engagement with our forums, including these possibilities:

  • Meet more frequently but for a shorter time. Some forums are meeting every week for an hour.  Others are meeting for two hours every other week.  Still others are calling emergency meetings as needed.
  • Continue to emphasize the importance of being there for each other, but agree to meet even if you can’t have 100% attendance. Evolving needs mean that commitments are less certain than in more stable times.
  • Focus updates on M.I.T. – the Most Important Things on members’ minds, on which they think the forum can offer some support, ideas or experience. Get to the essence quickly, identifying 3-5 word headlines such as “Messaging to employees,” “supporting elderly parents,” or “conserving cash.” Combine any similar MITs into a single topic.
  • At the moderator’s discretion, or with member input via the chat function, identify the most urgent and important topics
  • Instead of longer, traditional presentations/explorations, try to allow time to address multiple topics, asking members to make short and concise requests for:
    • Ideas
    • Experiences
    • Feedback on any ideas/actions they are considering
    • “I Notice…” feedback
    • Connections and leads
    • “If you were in my shoes…” feedback
    • Opportunity to vent or emote (no feedback)
  • Be efficient. Everyone in the forum can offer feedback once about the topic.  No repeating; instead say “plus one” to another person’s thoughts. Avoid tangents. The moderator can call “tangent alert” to refocus on the topic at hand.
  • Encourage one-on-one, out-of-meeting connections to address or expand on what can be covered in shorter, virtual meetings.

Acknowledgment: Thank you to YPO and HBS facilitator Michael Bloch from whose work this blog post is adapted.  For more details, see Michael’s full “wartime forum” agenda.

For the unprecedented times in which we now live: Forum update questions

As you prepare your forum update in times of pandemic, you may choose to answer one or more of these questions:

  • What part of your life or family needs the most care right now?
  • What leadership challenge in your business has been exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis?
  • What personal or professional relationship has been stressed by the coronavirus crisis?
  • What is the greatest fear you have now?
  • How has/will the crisis affect your company or family’s burn rate (income vs. expenses)? What approaches are you considering to deal with the situation?
  • Do you feel you are over-reacting or under-reacting to the evolving situation?
  • What risks do you see to your business/industry as a result of changes to the global business environment?
  • How is the coronavirus global situation causing you to re-evaluate your priorities, if at all?
  • What can you stop doing right now that will help you focus on this current challenge?
  • What key transition is coming up in your life that you are most scared or uncertain about due to the crisis?

With every question you can also reflect: How does the situation or challenge make you feel? How can the forum help?

Ten tips for awesome virtual forum meetings

A forum member recently said to me his group’s mantra from the beginning has been “Forum is always on, always in person, no one calls in.”  In a time of pandemic, social distancing, and restricted travel, that approach may no longer be sustainable.

And yet, we need forum more than ever!  Consider following these recommendations developed by my facilitator colleague Vince Corsaro and others:

  1. Pick the right meeting platform.
  2. Use the technology well, following established best practices.
  3. Reinforce security and confidentiality.
  4. Set norms that support a virtual format.
  5. Plan a shorter agenda focused on deep, connecting conversations.
  6. Consider scheduling “virtual coffees” outside of full group meetings to support each other in tough times.
  7. Get back together face-to-face as soon as you can.
  8. Create a private social media platform (e.g., Slack, WhatsApp) to support ongoing communication.
  9. Use shared, community building apps (like those available for Fitbit users) to monitor members’ health and fitness goals.
  10. Find other creative ways to connect such as a virtual “happy hour” or a designated day to post selfies on the group’s social media stream.

For more details and suggestions on each of these ideas, see Vince’s Google doc.

Forum in the age of coronavirus

Given the virus and offices closed down, should we cancel our monthly forum meeting or connect virtually?

How should we adapt our meeting to be most helpful to all of us?

How can forum help me stay calm and resilient in these challenging times?

These are the kind of questions forum members are asking in light of the escalating health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.  I suggest keeping in mind three simple messages.

We need forum now more than ever

Many of us have cancelled upcoming travel; others have had essential supply chains or product launches disrupted; and some are even questioning the financial viability of their businesses.  The months and years we have invested in building our forum’s bonds of trust and support can be a powerful source of strength while the world whirls around us.

At this fragile and uncertain time, we may question our competence, priorities, or decisions. We need a place where we can take off our masks, be vulnerable, and discuss what really matters.  Forum can be that safe port in this “viral storm.”   The worst decision right now could be to cancel your next forum meeting.

Virtual hugs can be (almost) as good as real hugs

Your forum can now meet only in a virtual mode. To do so, follow these best practices:

  • Meet in Zoom or on another platform which allows members to both see and hear each other.
  • Ask each member to be in a quiet, private space, sitting in front of their computer (preferred), or else using their tablet or phone.
  • To accommodate the virtual format, shorten your usual 3 or 4-hour meeting to 1.5 or 2 hours. This still allows time for updates and one full or two mini-presentations.
  • Start with an appropriate icebreaker: What strategy helps you be strong during tough times? What part of your life, family or business needs the most care right now? What leadership or relationship challenge has been exacerbated by the virus?

Embrace the spirit of the Buddist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and consider ending your meeting with a virtual “hug.” Close your eyes as the moderator invites each member to breathe three times consciously, thinking with those breaths: “I’m glad I’m here; I’m glad you’re here; I’m glad we’re here together.”

Stay flexible and be open to new possibilities

As the old saying goes, “people plan, and God laughs.”

We are blessed if we have a forum where we can be truly safe and known.  Now is the time to seek out that place where you can be “respected and cherished, protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged and heard.”

Bob Halperin

An invitation to “brave space”

The People’s Supper is a non-profit organization that uses shared meals to build trust and connection among people of different identities and perspectives.  Their work, born of a belief that “change moves at the speed of trust,” might also inspire our forums.  They often begin their suppers with this invitation to “brave space” by Micky ScottBey Jones:

Together we will create brave space

Because there is no such thing as a “safe space” —

We exist in the real world

We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.

In this space

We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,

We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,

We call each other to more truth and love

We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.

We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.

We will not be perfect.

This space will not be perfect. It will not always be what we wish it to be

But

It will be our brave space together,

and

We will work on it side by side.

May our forums be such brave spaces, that we create and nourish together.

Top Tips for Moderators

The role of forum moderator – being a peer leader of other leaders – can be challenging at times.  Take to heart these seven tips and you too can be a successful moderator.

  1. Don’t be a “chill” host. As suggested by Priya Parker in her beautiful book The Art of Gathering, leading requires planning, intentionality and focus. Great (forum) meetings don’t just happen by chance.
  2. Delegate! Don’t feel you have to do it all yourself.  Healthy forums operate on a voluntary, shared leadership model where everyone is expected to pitch in to support the group’s activities.
  3. Agree to norms and live by them. A forum constitution can be a touchstone of shared values, commitments and expectations that can be referred to whenever situations develop that may disrupt the group’s equilibrium or effectiveness.
  4. Clear the air early and often. Letting annoyances, distractions and anger build up can lower trust and lead to forum members disengaging.  Addressing issues before they escalate helps create a healthy space for members to share their toughest life challenges and highest aspirations.
  5. Get on the “balcony”. Regularly take an outsider’s perspective.  How are we doing? Are we hearing from everyone?  How can we improve?
  6. Be willing to experiment! Almost every aspect of forum can benefit from mixing it up occasionally.  Doing something once doesn’t commit the group to stick with it forever.
  7. Ask questions of genuine curiosity. When stressed, refrain from judging questions, and instead ask learning questions.  How did you come to see the situation this way? How does this issue affect you? What leads you to believe this is the right way forward? What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves?

Reviewing the Past Decade, and Visioning for the Next Decade

The core of a regular forum meeting is monthly updates.  How am I feeling about what’s happened since we last met?  What do I dread and anticipate that’s coming up? When you want to zoom out to a much longer time horizon, consider doing this exercise.

Questions to reflect on in advance of the forum meeting:

Review of the Past Decade:

  • What difficulties/hardships did you face? What did you learn?
  • What, if anything, would you do differently if you had the chance again?
  • How did you change? What did you gain? What are you willing to let go of?

Vision for the Next Decade:

  • Where am I in two years?
  • Who is around me? How am I feeling (differently than today)? What am I creating?
  • Two years from now, how will I think about where I want to be in eight more years?

In the forum meeting, there are two options on how to share depending on the available time:

Longer version (two rounds)

  1. Each person takes 5 minutes (timed) to reflect on the past decade. Then open up to general discussion for 10-20 minutes. What coming up for me as I hear others? How am I feeling as I hear the ways that others have answered the questions?

Repeat in the same fashion, looking forward to the next decade.

Shorter version (one round)

  1. Each person takes 5 minutes (timed) to reflect on both the past and next decade. Then allow an additional 15-30 minutes to reflect further: What coming up for me as I hear others? How am I feeling as I hear the ways that others have answered the questions?

Source: Kerim Baran, member of an HBS Alumni Forum in San Francisco with original credit to Ciela Wynter, an executive/CEO coach and founder of Joan of Sparc, an innovative platform for empowerment and transformation through self-inquiry.