If you’ve ever been involved with local government, philanthropic foundations, religious groups, homeowners associations or your neighborhood yacht club, you’re likely familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order. If not, you should know that it’s the world’s most widely used manual for parliamentary procedure.
When people come together to make rules and oversee a particular organization, they need to maintain order. Robert’s Rules of Order offer just that. To this day, it’s still used as the leading template for a majority of American meetings.
When you have a group of people who may likely disagree, Robert’s Rules of Orders keeps things sane. It’s amazing that congregations of people have been valuing productivity and group sanity since 1876 – when the manual was first published.
The backstory is quite interesting. The rules of order were created by U.S. Army officer Henry Robert. His father was the first president of Morehouse College. Robert attended West Point and graduated 4th in his class before moving around the country helping with various Army projects.
While in San Francisco, the local leader of his community didn’t show up for a church meeting. Henry Robert was asked to preside over the town hall (without any prior notice). Let’s just say that on this particular evening in 1876, he did a bad job. An hour into the meeting, people were screaming and the church actually erupted into open conflict.
The event, which may sound similar to the inefficient meetings at your old job, made Henry Robert swear that he would never attend another meeting until he learned about parliamentary procedure. He wanted the meeting to have order – otherwise it wasn’t worth attending. Why meet if you can’t create something productive?
Robert started studying the procedures used in the U.S. House of Representatives to craft his own set of rules. He went to libraries and studies every book available on the subject. As a member of the U.S. Army, he was frequently transferred to different military bases around the country. He quickly realized that different cities followed completely different parliamentary procedures.
On the few occasions that people from these different communities decided to meet, it was parliamentary chaos to the Type A mind.. How was anybody supposed to accomplish anything meaningful if every attendee followed separate mental models and templates to make group decisions?
He wrote Robert’s Rules of Order to help these local communities find signal inside the noise (and there was a whole lot of noise). Back then, people had a tendency to believe they held a monopoly on the truth. Each person wanted the best for their community. They just had different means of achieving said goal. Robert’s Rules offered a way to get everyone on the same page. It offered groups of any size a simple and fair way to achieve democracy.
The Book’s Purpose
For ~150 years, Robert’s Rules of Order have acted as a group decision-making guide. Robert defined the purpose like this – “to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion”. Simply put – it helps people conduct meetings.
The book believes in the rights of the voting majority. It preaches the following 3 philosophies:
1.) One person, one vote.
2.) One question at a time (so your meeting doesn’t get off topic).
3.) Only those who attend the meeting can vote.
Maybe your company works a bit differently. For example, your team’s decisions must always match the CEO’s final opinion (regardless of the vote’s true outcome). Robert’s Rules explains that certain rights should be offered when a minority is greater than one third of the attending members.
At your own company, if a decision is split almost evenly – do you make an attempt to bridge the gap? Does your team also try to accommodate the views of people who voted against your proposal? Or maybe your management team tries to accommodate these views too much?
Robert’s Rules dictate who can speak, who can make motions, and who can even attend said meeting. The manual demonstrates how to properly make a motion, how to second the motion, and how to have reasonable debate on any subject matter. It even explains how to properly announce the results of the vote. Some groups prefer to vote anonymously, while others work differently.
Robert’s Rules of Order offer formal steps that everyone must adhere to and follow intently. If someone breaks these rules, they are no longer allowed to speak. Could you imagine if your normal office meetings had such rigidity? Could you imagine how much your team would accomplish?
While Henry Robert is long gone, the Rules of Order have lived on thanks to a trust that selects a team of authors to revise and update the book’s contents. In 2011, they added a new subsection on electronic meetings. Personally, I’d love to know what Robert would think of Zoom. I believe he’d be a big fan of Slack. Robert would like Jira even more (one issue at a time).
If our children are capable of following these rules in their high school student councils….
If our great-great-great grandparents could abide by this parliamentary procedure without formal education…
If people all over the world can use this to keep the ball moving…
Then why haven’t you applied these same practices to your current meetings?
Structure offers efficiency.
Rules offer fairness.
Robert’s Rules offer productivity.