Where would you “seat” yourself today?

The New Yorker recently published a cartoon that shows a host at a restaurant about to seat a couple.  He asks them: “Do you want me to seat you in the ‘Had sex this morning’ section or the ‘Had a fight this morning’ section?”

All-in-one, the cartoon is funny, sensitive, and revealing.  And as a icebreaker question, it may have nothing to do with sex.  Share the cartoon at the beginning of your forum meeting and ask everyone to respond:

Where would you “seat” yourself today?  Are you in a good frame of mind, or are you cranky, sad or angry?  Or are you somewhere in between, some mix of thoughts and emotions?

Mixing up your updates: High, Low, Medium, Rocky

Thanks to Melissa Weiksnar for sharing this idea.

Inspired by a grade school jump-rope game, “High, Low, Medium, Rocky,” try mixing up your updates with this approach:

Since we last met, what was:

  • your highest high,
  • your lowest low (could be a sadness or a profoundly deep realization)
  • a totally mundane update that nevertheless tells something about you
  • your rockiest, most turbulent issue

For each of the four categories, try to describe what it felt like to be in that state.

Melissa reports that members took up to 4 minutes each, and people really liked the way this format helped hone in on the emotions, and avoid the “travelogue.”

Needs and leads

Every member of a forum will over time have needs for a referral, introduction, expertise, new investment, or ideas on hiring, technology, or some other personal or professional issue.  At the same time, other members can often offer direct or indirect leads to help the first member.

Consider incorporating this “Needs and Leads” into your meetings on a regular or occasional basis:

  • The moderator sets up the exercise by explaining the objective and giving an example. “I’m looking for distribution channels in South America” or “touring ideas in Italy” or “a science tutor for my son.” Note that even if you can’t personally provide a direct connection, you might know of others who could help.
  • Go around the room, and each member states a need (or two) in under a minute.  If any other member thinks they can help, they raise their hand.
  • It is up to the members with “needs” to follow up with any members who provide “leads.”

“Tweeting” your update

Shakespeare opined that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and Pascal observed “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

In that spirit, try one of these three approaches to concise updates, preferable with advance notice so members have “the time to make it shorter.”

  • If your update this month was a movie title, what would it be and why?
  • Share your update as a six-word story, and then “unpack”/explain the story. For more on this rich approach, inspired by a famous challenge to Ernest Hemingway, see this website.
  • Prepare your update as a “tweet” (i.e. 140 characters, including spacing and punctuation), trying to include feelings. At the meeting, everyone will read their “tweet” (you don’t actually use Twitter!), have a thematic discussion, and go into more depth where needed.

Melissa Weiksar, who suggested the last option, reports that in her forum, everyone had a slightly different interpretation; perhaps the most interesting from someone who did his as a string of noun/verb/feeling updates. People appreciated how they had to truly distill what was most important.

Holding each other accountable in forum

In forum we withhold judgment, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold each other accountable.  In fact, one of the most powerful uses of forum is for me to hold myself accountable to a certain goal, commitment or deadline; with the other members of the forum serving as my witnesses.

If your forum wants to focus more on personal accountability, consider these possibilities:

  • Any member can voluntarily ask to be held accountable to report back to the forum at a specific future date on their progress/action related to a specific goal.
  • The forum can designate one member to serve as the accountability/commitment “secretary” who will ask about any pending items, either at the beginning of the meeting or during updates.
  • This SMART goals template can be used by any member to ensure that any goals they set are S.M.A.R.T. – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-framed.

“ERMIA” Updates

Melissa Weiksnar, a longtime member of an HBS forum in Boston,  suggests this occasional variation on members’ monthly updates.

Ask each member to share an “ERMIA” update”:  What did you Eliminate, Reduce, Maintain, Increase, or Add since our last meeting?  And how does this update make you feel?

This kind of update helps members focus on issues of balance – how are you spending your time, what have you changed recently, and what would you still like to change?   Items to be mentioned could relate to your business, personal, or family life.

The many alternatives to a standard four-hour meeting

Many forums standardize on one four-hour meeting monthly plus an annual retreat.  However, there are many ways to mix it up, to accommodate individual scheduling needs, and to build richer connections between members.  Some options to consider on an occasional or regular basis:

  • Try a shorter meeting between 2-3.5 hours, either because that’s what works one month or because your forum is smaller and less time is needed.
  • If you regularly have shorter meetings, consider adding a 30-minute check-in/quick update call between monthly meetings.
  • Once or twice a year, shorten the meeting to about 2.5 hours (time for updates and one presentation), and then go out to dinner or cater the meal in to a member’s conference room or home.
  • Plan a 5-6 hour mini-retreat, with or without a professional facilitator.
  • In the summer, rent a boat (or find a friend who has one). Go on a 2-3 hour cruise, including extended updates only, then socializing.
  • Plan a holiday dinner with spouses or a summer picnic with kids to get to know each other’s families.
  • Don’t limit connections to forum meetings. Meet one-on-one, either as part of the coaching process, as a follow-up to someone’s presentation, or to discuss shared personal or professional interests.
  • When requested by a member with an urgent issue, schedule an emergency meeting. Such sessions have only one agenda item – a presentation of the member’s urgent issue. The meeting usually lasts an hour or less and may be held via conference or video call.  Because the meeting is not on the regular calendar, absences don’t affect member attendance statistics.
  • If too many members are traveling, meet virtually using Skype, Zoom or another video meeting platform.