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Don’t Let Robert’s Rules Rule Your Meetings

So, social enterprise and social impact organization folks, hands up if you’ve ever had this experience: you’re in a critical or an important meeting and the discussion on the issue that must be decided gets derailed because of an argument over whether the sub-amendment can be made to the main motion and whether or not there needs to be a seconder to the friendly amendment.

What’s just happened is that you’ve crossed the rubicon between using Robert’s Rules to help guide your meeting and letting Robert’s Rules rule your meeting. This isn’t a good line to cross. Your organization’s rules of order should be flexible, with a goal of enabling good, productive discussion in order to succeed – they shouldn’t be things that derail discussions.

I’ve got some simple suggestions that you can use very quickly to make your meetings more productive, by not letting Roberts’ Rules rule your meetings. Read on for more!

Discussion before motions?

One thing that is key in how Robert’s Rules governed meetings proceed is that there needs to be a “motion” on the table before discussion can happen. If you’re unfamiliar with Robert’s Rules, a “motion” is a proposed decision. For example, you might have the following kinds of motions at your social impact organization meeting:

  • I move that we open a second cafe location in Kitsilano.
  • I move that we purchase internet services from the Phone Co-op.
  • I move that we create a hiring committee for an executive director.

As you can see, motions propose a specific direction of action; they are intended to be a ‘resolution’ to a challenge or a problemt that your organization is facing.

Under Robert’s Rules of Order, it’s hard to have a discussion about the issue itself (“Should we open a second cafe? Where should we get internet services? Do we need a hiring committee?”) without having a motion on the table – theoretically, with any of these motions, you can then discuss broader issues.

However, this isn’t always the best approach. Your organization may want to have broader, strategic discussions on key issues that it is facing – and if you start with a proposed solution, it can seem to be disenfranchising on the people around the table. After all, why start discussing an issue if the solution has already been proposed?

Framing discussions around the proposed motions can also be challenging, because the motion can often “frame” the bounds of your discussion; if the motion is to purchase internet services from a specific provider, then it can be hard to expand the discussion more broadly to whether or not internet is needed – because that’s potentially out of bounds.

One key suggestion that I have about conducting meetings with Robert’s Rules of Order is to change up how you handle motions: start with a discussion.

Starting with a discussion means that you can start by discussing the issue at hand; allow everyone to take the opportunity to provide some input into what they think that your organization should be doing – or even if the issue that you’re discussing is one that needs to be dealt with! Starting with the motion, though, closes the door to the broader debate. Opening that door will create healthier discussions and happier meeting attendees.

But that’s not in Robert’s Rules

If you try this tactic of discussion before motion, you might end up with someone in your meeting objecting “because that’s not in Robert’s Rules.” While I’m tempted to reply, often, that neither is a “friendly amendment,” though that’s often abused as a parliamentary procedure, the truth is that your objector is correct.

Having a discussion about a matter before a motion is indeed not in Robert’s Rules. You have a couple of options you can use to deal with this issue: you can hold a “committee of the whole,” in which Rules are somewhat suspended for the time being, or you can create a culture where discussing the issue is expected and where Robert’s Rules aren’t seen as boundaries that can be used to straitjacket a meeting.

In reality, the issue of the culture of your meeting should be your primary concern here: what are the participants in your meeting being sticklers about what’s in Robert’s Rules? Do they feel disempowered? Are they feeling excluded? Do they feel lost?

People who feel disconnected, disrespected, and disempowered will do what they can to get some traction in your meetings – and that can be tactics like using Robert’s Rules to get some power back where they feel they have none. The problem with this, of course, is that your meetings might get derailed. But the meeting is getting derailed because you have some serious issues in your organization that you need to deal with.

Solving these kinds of problems can help build you more productive meetings. They can also produce more happier meeting participants.

Once you’ve got this strategy down, you can do some neat parliamentary procedure tricks: you can create amended rules of order for your organization that explicitly state that discussion can come before motions.

If this seems a bit too confusing for you, get in touch and we can help make your meetings more productive by helping you with the ground rules.

About Kevin Harding

Kevin Harding is a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, and is a volunteer board member of the Art for Impact Society. He has worked in the nonprofit, public, and cooperative sector for some time, and has a passion for working with coops, nonprofits, and advocacy groups that want to make a better world. A coop developer, he strongly believes that cooperatives can build a better world.

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