Open Forums – How to Make Them Productive

PartnershipsIf done the right way, a homeowner forum can achieve many goals.  It can capture community-wide interests and concerns.  It can give the owners a voice.   It’s great for generating opinions, feedback and new ideas.  It will increase the Board’s awareness of potential problems on the horizon. And, hopefully, it will engage and foster future participation by owners.

If done the wrong way, a homeowner forum could leave owners feeling frustrated and unwilling to attend future sessions.  It could turn into a “fix-it” session rather than a time for conveying ideas and concerns.  It could become a platform for one person’s agenda, overshadowing all other topics.  It could morph from the anticipated 30 minute session into a hostile takeover of the entire meeting.

So do it the right way.  And follow these five T’s for a more productive homeowner forum:

    • Ask for Topics
    • Use your Tools
    • Set the Tone
    • Task it Forward
    • Timing is Everything

Topics

Ask for topics ahead of time.  Knowing the topics in advance will keep the session focused, and will avoid unwanted surprises.  Plus, it permits the Chair to maneuver from topic to topic, allowing for a smoother and more efficient session.  And, while it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to submit, or even know, what topics they wish to speak on, the more you know ahead of time, the less inefficiency.

Tools

What’s the perfect tool for maintaining order during a homeowner forum? A conduct of meeting policy.   It sets up the general ground rules for the forum and helps keep things on track.  For example, the policy could establish time limitations for speakers. It could require that everyone get a chance to speak before allowing others additional time.  It could require that only one person speak at a time and establish penalties for disruption.  A well-written policy allows all the opportunity to be heard, while minimizing interruptions.  Essentially it’s a reminder for all participants to exercise good manners.  And, don’t forget to actually USE the policy, once you’ve adopted it.

Tone

Set the tone of the forum.  The Chair should have a firm but not heavy hand, ensuring homeowners stick to their topic and adhere to time limits. The Chair should maintain order and keep the forum on course by moving the topics along, and allowing everyone to be heard in a timely manner.  Finally, the Chair should call out and immediately handle disruptive behavior and any attempts to monopolize the session.

Task it Forward

A homeowner forum should not be any of the following:  A gripe fest; a brain-storming session; a fix-it forum. This is a time for homeowners to bring up their ideas and concerns, and for the Board to listen (raising its awareness) and respond if the issue can be easily and succinctly addressed.  The last thing the Board should do at a forum is attempt to solve a complicated problem or delve into the details of whether an idea can be executed. Some issues deserve more attention, research and discussion at a later date.

Task the idea forward.  Maybe even create a task force if warranted.   A task force is a group of people who temporarily work together to achieve a very specific and clearly defined objective.  That objective might be raised during the homeowner forum.  Creation of a task force provides an opportunity for homeowner participation, and allows for informed decision-making and, ultimately, a better result.

Timing

Last but not least, consider when to hold the homeowner forum.  Some will argue it should be held at the beginning of the meeting, so that owners will be able to say what they came to say if they can’t stay for the entire meeting.  Others will argue that it should be at the end, so you have time to handle other business in a timely manner, but also to avoid the potential grumbling that threatens to bleed into the rest of the meeting.  There are pros and cons for timing it at the beginning or end of the meeting, but it should be part of your consideration.

A well-run homeowner forum will lead to better results and, hopefully, engage more homeowner participation in upcoming sessions.  The above tips should help you get the most out of your homeowner forums.