A New Touchstones Discussion Program

Since late spring, once a month 12 professionals— lawyers, CEOs, investors, entrepreneurs—sign onto a ZOOM meeting to spend 90 minutes together in a Touchstones discussion. Like all Touchstones programs, this virtual program uses selected texts— in this case recent short-fiction by writers such as Borges, Calvino, Handke, and Hazzard. These works function as tools, touchstones, to make our emerging world more visible. Undertaking this in a virtual form is a relatively new departure as we chart a course both by exploring these recent modes of fiction and engaging in authentic inquiry via a virtual platform.

Although we’ve piloted online programs in the past, we’ve affirmed this spring that our unique, decades long and tested approach in the concrete Touchstones face-to-face experience translates richly and effectively into virtual discussions. These meetings equal both the intimacy and collaborative power of our traditional environment and, like explorations in person, create a venue for full and balanced participation with room for everyone’s talents and insights. One participant, a CEO from a major marketing corporation with prior experience running Touchstones groups said he was stunned at the extremely high level of engagement and in certain respects even preferred the virtual sessions. A successful entrepreneur from the Midwest who is also involved in internet marketing said he finds this Touchstones program an important vehicle for igniting his thinking and expanding his horizons. Participants come in from every time zone in the continental U.S., effortlessly overcoming geographic distance with remarkable ease and connecting meaningfully with others from diverse communities and professions.

Our foray into online executive programs began six years ago in piloting Mapping the Future with nine highly experienced Touchstones participants. Mapping serves as the backbone of our executive work because it develops a deepened and collaborative organizational culture. In that pilot, the group felt a virtual format offered many exciting possibilities, but issues of connectivity and bandwidth were problematic. High-speed access has improved significantly and new platforms such as Zoom offer tremendous adaptability.

In creating the new Touchstones custom program, we offered additional guidelines for online interaction: participants do not mute their microphones and the private chat tool is not allowed. Everything remains public and available to all— with few barriers to entry into the discussion. The use of breakout rooms enables small group work where teams of two to apply the Touchstones method to examine leadership issues. And polls, creatively designed, allow the group more detailed assessment of their dynamics. Even Touchstones speech maps can play a useful role, as they capture the flow and patterns in speaking. Although the current group has 12 participants, we’re considering expanding future group sizes to 18-20 participants.

We believe providing exceptional experiences in both in-person and virtual discussion programs strengthens our position as leaders in innovation and education. We will keep you current on these ground-breaking initiatives, as we seek opportunities to engage more leaders from around the country and the world in Touchstones.