Chapter 2: Groups In Organizations
Meetings in Organizations
One author wrote:
Once I ran across something in a book that really agitated me. The volume presented lists of ideas for living a happy and fulfilled life. One of the lists was headed “Five Great Ways to Find a Friend.” Its first four ideas were to find a cause, find a church, find a class, and find a club. All those ideas seemed reasonable to me. Recommendation #5, however, was “find a committee.” When I saw this, I immediately asked myself, “What were the authors of this book eating, drinking, or smoking when they wrote this? Who with more sense than a pencil eraser would suggest actually LOOKING FOR A COMMITTEE TO JOIN for any reason whatsoever?”
Are you lonely?
A college administrator we know overheard her seven-year-old daughter and another little girl talking about their parents. “What does your mother do?” asked the other child. “She goes to meetings,” replied the administrator’s child.
Whether in educational settings or business or elsewhere, meetings dominate the way many groups operate in American society. Estimates of the number of meetings that take place every day in our country range from 11 million to more than 30 million. One authority claims that the average chief executive officer spends 17 hours per week in meetings, whereas the average senior executive spends 23 hours per week.
If the average number of people in each of these meetings is only five and the average meeting lasts only one hour, this means that between 55,000,000 and 150,000,000 person-hours each day are being consumed by meetings. Assuming a 50-week work year, then, the total time devoted to meetings each year amounts to at least fifteen billion person-hours. As for you, yourself, one estimate is that you’ll spend 35–50% of every workweek in meetings, for a total of more than 9,000 hours over the course of your lifetime.
If meetings are so central to what groups do, and so time-consuming, it makes sense to pay attention to how they’re conducted. Like any other course of action, the process of engaging in meetings has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In our first section we’ll consider the beginning—the planning part. Later we’ll look at techniques for facilitating a meeting, the use of Robert’s Rules of Order, and the best ways to follow up after a meeting.
Planning a Meeting
“Aller Anfang ist schwer.” German saying (“All beginnings are difficult.”)
“The beginning is half the job”. Korean saying
Whether and how carefully you plan any undertaking will determine in large part how well it turns out. Bad planning makes it harder to achieve your goals; good planning makes it easier. This certainly applies to meetings of groups, so it’s wise for us to examine how to plan those meetings effectively. Before we consider the ins and outs of that planning, however, let’s reflect on the proper role of meetings.
What Are Meetings for?
Office equipment and supplies constitute tools to support the work of most modern groups such as student teams in college classes, employees and executives in businesses, and collections of people in other organizations. None of those groups would say, however, that using copy machines and staplers is one of their goals. And none of them would visit a copy machine unless they had something they needed to reproduce. They wouldn’t grab a stapler, either, unless they had some papers to attach to each other.
Meetings resemble office supplies in at least one way: they can help a group accomplish its goals. But meetings are like office supplies in another way, too: they’re only a means toward reaching group goals, not an end in themselves. And sometimes they’re even antithetical to the efficient functioning of a group. One statistical analysis of workers’ reactions to meetings discovered a significant positive relationship between the number of meetings attended and both the level of fatigue and the sensation of being subjected to a heavy work load.
Remember these truths, therefore: If it is operating well, your group at some point probably adopted goals for itself. It may even have ranked those goals in order of importance. Members of a student team might, for example, decide that their joint goals are to earn a high grade on their group project, to have fun together, and to ensure that all of them can secure a positive recommendation from the instructor when they look for a job after graduation.
“To meet” is not one of the goals of any group, though, is it? No; your goals involve doing things, not meeting—not even meeting to decide what you’re going to do and whether you’re doing it. Therefore, you should not meet until and unless doing so will clearly contribute to a real goal of your group.
What this means in practical reality is that many, many regularly-scheduled meetings probably ought to be canceled, postponed, or at the very least substantially shortened. It means that meetings which aren’t part of an official, ongoing series should be conducted only if the people who would be participating agree that having the meetings is necessary to answer a question, solve a problem, make a decision, or ensure that people know what it is they are and should be doing. It means, in short, that a group’s “default position” should be never to meet.
If you’re in a position to decide whether and when a meeting will take place, you’re in control of what some might consider other people’s most valuable possession: their time. If you take this responsibility seriously and act on it wisely, your fellow group members will appreciate it—especially since many group leaders don’t do so.
To Meet or Not to Meet
In the twenty-first century, technology offers techniques for accomplishing many group goals without meeting face to face. A helpful website called “Lifehacker” suggests that you follow these steps before scheduling in-person meetings:
- Get done what you can by email. If email doesn’t accomplish your aims, use the telephone. Only if neither email nor the phone works should you meet face to face.
- Calculate the opportunity cost of a potential meeting. What task(s) that you could be engaged in at the time of the meeting will you have to postpone, or forgo entirely, because of the meeting? Is it worth it?
- Ask yourself what bad results, if any, will come to pass if you don’t meet. What about if you don’t meet this time, but later instead? If the bad things which you expect to arise if you don’t meet are minimal or can be dealt with easily, don’t meet, or at least not now.
- Ask if it’s essential for everyone in the group to be at the same physical location at the time of the meeting. Assess whether the chore of just moving people’s molecules from one place to another could render a face-to-face meeting undesirable.
If It’s “to Meet,” Then What?
Once you’ve decided that you should hold a meeting of some sort, you should do your best to make sure it will run well. Part of this undertaking is to ensure that all the members of your group understand the significance of the time they’ll be devoting to getting together. To this end, you may want to create a list of basic obligations you feel everyone should fulfill with respect to all meetings. These obligations might include the following items:
- If you can’t make it to a meeting, let the person who’s organizing it know in a timely fashion. If you were expected to make a report or complete a task of some sort by the time of the meeting, either submit the report through someone else who will be there or inform the organizer of when you’ll finish what you’re committed to be doing. If you can find someone to fill in for you at the meeting, do it.
- If you can attend the meeting, prepare for it. Read meeting announcements and agendas. Take necessary and appropriate information and tools with you to each meeting. Come to meetings with an open mind and with a mental picture of what you may contribute to the discussion.
- Pay attention. Avoid side conversations or other actions that might keep you from understanding what’s going on in a meeting.
- Be clear and concise. Seek parsimonious discourse. Don’t speak unless you’re sure you’ll improve over silence by doing so.
- Wait to express your own opinion until you’re sure you understand others’ views.
- Challenge assumptions, but stick to the topic and offer constructive rather than destructive criticism.
- Know when to give in on a matter of disagreement. Stick to your convictions, but consider carefully whether you need to have your way in any particular situation.
Guidelines for Planning a Meeting
Again, first of all: don’t meet at all unless you need to. Once you’ve determined that a meeting will promote rather than hinder productivity, preparing for it well will give you a head start on maximizing its effectiveness. Here are six guidelines to take into account as you plan a meeting:
Identify the specific goals.
Identify the specific goals you plan to achieve in the meeting and the methods you’ll use to decide if you’ve achieved them. Write the goals down. Reread them. Let them sit a while. Read them again to see if they’re still appropriate and necessary.
If the goals of the meeting still look as though they’re all valuable, remember Dwight Eisenhower’s dictum that “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” If you’re not sure you can get everything done that you hope to in the time you’ll have available, set priorities so that the most urgent items are taken care of quickly and you can postpone others without endangering what’s most important to get done.
Decide carefully who needs to attend.
At one point, Amazon Corporation implemented a “two-pizza guideline” whereby it limited the number of people who composed its teams to the quantity that could be fed with two pizzas. If you calculate that the people you plan to invite to your meeting constitute larger than a two-pizza group, ask yourself if all of them really, really, really need to be there.
Produce a clear, brief, thorough, informative agenda.
Don’t spring surprises on people. To give them a solid idea of what to expect, divide the meeting’s agenda into simple categories. For each item, name the individual in charge of it, indicate whether it will require action by the group, and provide an estimated duration. (You’ll need to confirm these estimates with the responsible parties, of course). If you expect some or all of the group’s members to complete a task before they arrive, such as reading a report or generating possible solutions to a problem, tell them so clearly. If you Google “meeting agenda” you will find a wide variety of examples you can modify to include the information above.
Here’s a special note, too: Don’t plan to stretch the contents of a meeting to fit a preordained time. Strive to cut down on how long you spend to handle each item on your agenda as much as you can so that members of your group can get back to their other responsibilities as soon as possible. A shorter-than-expected meeting is usually a thing of joy.
Pick a good venue.
If you have a choice, plan to gather in a place with plenty of light, comfortable furniture, and a minimum of distracting sounds or sights. You should be able to adjust the temperature, too, if people get too hot or cold. Make sure that any technological tools you think will be available to you are actually going to be on hand when you meet and that they’re all functioning. Even if you expect to have access to a laptop computer and a projector, plan to bring a flip chart and markers so that people will be able to express and record ideas spontaneously during the meeting. And all other things being equal, find a place to meet regularly which is large enough and secure enough to allow your group members to store the “tools of their trade” there—flipcharts, writing supplies, reference books, etc.—between gatherings.
Make sure the participants receive the agenda.
Make sure people receive the agenda you’ve prepared in a timely fashion so they’ll know why, when, where, and for how long the group is expected to meet. Agendas can be sent via email, and/or in a shared folder.
One college president from a Southern state maintained that he’d gotten his board of trustees to act “like trained seals,” partly through thorough preparation for their meetings. In fact, the president actually ran practice meetings with the board to make sure there would be no surprises when the real meetings took place. You should practice, too, at gently, repeatedly, and clearly notifying other group members of the time and agenda of each meeting. For every person who thinks you’re being repetitive, two or three will thank you for keeping them from overlooking the meeting.
If you’re planning to meet in a place for the first time, or if you’re expecting someone to attend your meeting for the first time, be sure to provide clear and complete directions to the location. With online tools such as mapquest.com and google maps at your disposal, it should cost you very little time to locate such directions and send them to members of your group.
Arrive early to size up and set up the place where you’re meeting. Rooms sometimes get double-booked, furniture sometimes gets rearranged, technological tools such as LCD projectors and laptop computers sometimes break down or get taken away to be repaired, and so on and on. If you’re the person in charge of leading the meeting, you need to know first if unexpected happenings like these have taken place.
Facilitating a Meeting
Phil Venditti said:
Most committees I’ve served on have been inefficient, superfluous, repetitive, sluggish, unproductive, erratic, rancorous, or boring—or all of the above. By and large, they’ve wasted my time and the time of many other people. Frequently, everyone in the group eagerly helped identify jobs that needed to accomplished, but just a few members ended up shouldering the burdens and completing the tasks. The rest did their best to avoid the group entirely and had to be cajoled or badgered to take part in meetings and work. Most of the meetings oscillated between tedium, dreariness, and fruitless conflict. In short, the meetings were cesspools of futility.
Preparing for group meetings well takes you a third of the way toward ensuring their productivity, and follow-up takes care of another third. The rest of the process is to run the meetings efficiently.
Make no mistake: facilitating a meeting well is difficult. It requires care, vigilance, flexibility, resilience, humility, and humor. In a way, in fact, to run a meeting effectively calls upon you to act the way a skilled athletic coach does, watching the action, calling plays, and encouraging good performance. Furthermore, you need to monitor the interaction of everyone around you and “call the plays” based on a game plan that you and your fellow group members have presumably agreed upon in advance. Finally, like a coach, you sometimes need to call timeouts—breaks—when people are weary or the action is starting to get raggedy or undisciplined.
Perils of Poor Facilitation
Unfortunately, many people lack effective meeting facilitation skills. As a result, a variety of negative results can take place as they fail to act capably as meeting facilitators. Here are some signs that there’s “Trouble in River City” in a meeting:
- An argument starts about an established fact.
- Opinions are introduced as if they were truths.
- People intimidate others with real or imaginary “knowledge.”
- People overwhelm each other with too many proposals for the time available to consider them.
- People become angry for no good reason.
- People promote their own visions at the expense of everyone else’s.
- People demand or offer much more information than is needed.
- Discussion becomes circular; people repeat themselves without making any progress toward conclusions.
If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms of a poorly-facilitated meeting, you realize how demoralizing they can be for a group.
Guidelines for Facilitating a Meeting
So how you you facilitate a productive meeting? Here are some important skills for an effective meeting facilitator.
- Start promptly…always.
Some time, calculate the cost to your group—even at minimum-wage rates—for the minutes its members sit around waiting for meetings to begin. You may occasionally be delayed for good reasons, but if you’re chronically late you’ll eventually aggravate folks who’ve arrived on time—the very ones whose professionalism you’d particularly like to reinforce and praise. Consistently starting on time may even boost morale: “Early in, early out” will probably appeal to most of a group’s members, since they are likely to have other things they need to do as soon as a meeting ends.
2. Involve everyone in the conversation to create positive synergy.
One way to do this is by having members take turn sharing out (e.g., “Lets go around and update each other…”). Another way to get conversation flowing is by asking an overheard question (e.g., “What do people think about the marking proposal?”). If you notice a specific group member hasnt had a turn to talk, you might employ a “gatekeeping” technique of asking a direct question (e.g., “Alice, did you have anything you wanted to add before we move on?”).
3. Keep the discussion on track.
Conversations that wonder off topic for a few minutes can be ok (sometimes they are bonding moments for the group). You dont want to waste members’ time, however, by spending too much time talking about irrelevant topic. If you need get the discussion back on track you might remind the group of time pressures (e.g., “I see we have 10 minutes left today so we should probably get back to deciding on…”), summarizing and redirecting (e.g., “Sounds like folks had a nice weekend. Lets move on to the next agenda item, however.”), using relevance challenges (e.g., “I’m confused, you suggesting we are required to create a video to go along with our media campaing?”), and/or promise deal with good ideas later (e.g., “I love the idea of a shared Google drive for our documents. Lets talk more about that once we’ve settled on a project topic.”).
4. Keep your eyes open for nonverbal communication.
As a meeting progresses, people’s physical and emotional states are likely to change. As the facilitator, you should do your best to identify such change and accommodate it within the structures and processes your group has established for itself. When people do something as simple as crossing their arms in front of them, for instance, they might be signaling that they’re closed to what others are saying—or they might just be trying to stay warm in a room that feels too cold to them.
When one person in the meeting has the floor and is talking, it’s a good idea to watch how the rest of the group seems to be responding. You may notice clues indicating that people are pleased and receptive, or that they’re uninterested, skeptical, or even itching to respond negatively. You may want to do a perception check to see if you’re interpreting nonverbal cues accurately. For instance, you might say, “Terry, could we pause here a bit? I get the impression that people might have some questions for you.” As an alternative, you might address the whole group and ask “Does anyone have questions for Terry at this point?”
5. Create a positive tone.
Since many people dread meetings, it is helpful to create a positive and collaborative tone in a meeting. One way to do this by demonstrating you’ve listened to a group member by paraphrasing what you heard them say (e.g., “So what I heard you suggest is that we…”). Alternatively, you can create a positive environment by praising their contributions.(e.g., “That’s a great idea”, ” I’m so glad your bbrought that up because I was concerned about that too’)
Finally, you can appeal to people’s tummies and funnybones. Provide something to eat or drink, even if it’s just coffee or peanuts in a bowl. Glenn Parker and George Hoffman’s book on how to run meetings well includes a chapter titled “Eating Well=Meeting Well,” and it also refers to the fact that the American Cancer Society offers a program to help groups organize meetings and other events with good health in mind.
Tips For Virtual Meetings
Meetings conducted via Skype, Zoom, Google Duo or other synchronous technologies can function as efficiently as face-to-face ones, but only if the distinctive challenges of the virtual environment are taken into account. It’s harder to develop empathy with other people, and easier to engage in unhelpful multitasking, when you’re not in the same physical space with them. To make it more likely that a virtual meeting will be both pleasant and productive, then, it makes sense to tell people up front what your expectations are of their behavior. If you want them to avoid reading email or playing computer solitaire on their computers while the meeting is underway, for example, say so.
A major goal of most meetings is to reach decisions based on maximum involvement, so it pays to keep in mind that people work best with other people whom they know and understand. With this in mind, you might choose to email a photo of each person scheduled to be in the meeting and include a quick biography for everyone to look over in advance. This communication could take place along with disseminating the meeting’s agenda and other supporting documentation.
Here are some further tips and suggestions for leading or participating in virtual meetings, each based on the unique features of such gatherings:
- Get all the participants in a meeting to say something brief at the start of the meeting to verify the sound is working.
- Remind people of the purpose of the meeting and the agenda.
- Listen/watch for people who aren’t participating and ask them periodically if they have thoughts or suggestions to add to the discussion.
- Summarize the status of the meeting from time to time.
- Encourage participants to mute their microphone when not speaking, to avoid distracting background noise.
Post Meeting Communication
Bookends hold books up. Without them, the books tumble onto each other or off the shelf. The “bookends” of a meeting, likewise, are as important as the meeting itself. Without them, nobody knows beforehand what’s going to happen or remembers afterward what did. We’ve discussed the first major bookend of a meeting, its agenda. In this section we’ll turn our attention to the kinds of bookends that follow a meeting: post meeting follow ups.
If you’re the leader of the group, making sure that minute taker distributes the minutes to the group is one step toward increasing the likelihood that your meetings will achieve their full potential of transmitting discussions into plans and plans into action.
Next, you should contact group members who were identified in the minutes as being responsible for follow-up action. See if they need information, resources, or other help to follow through on their assignments. If a committee or subcommittee was asked to take action on some point, get in touch with whoever heads it and offer to provide materials or other support that may be needed to accomplish its work.
Additionally, you should set a positive example. Take a few minutes to reflect on how effective you were in facilitating the last meeting and ask yourself what you might change at the next one. Be sure, too, to implement any decisions in a timely fashion that you as the leader were given.
Finally, you should make sure that the minutes of your group’s meetings are stored in secure form, either physically or digitally or both, so that they are available to both you and other group members at any time. Your group’s institutional memory, which is the foundation for future members to build upon, needs to be tended regularly and diligently. When in doubt, it’s better to hold onto information and documentation related to your group. Discarding something because you think to yourself “nobody will forget this” may very well turn out to be a mistake.
Observing these suggestions may not make the experiences associated with following up on group meetings heavenly, but it might at least keep them from being too hellish.
Among the exasperating experiences in group meetings are moments when people say, “We talked about this before—at least twice. Why are we going over the same ground again?” There are also those times when we hear, “John, you were supposed to report on this. What’s your report?” and John replies, “But I didn’t know I was supposed to make a report.” The best way to prevent such deflating episodes is to follow up after each meeting with good records. Meeting minute are a permanent document which enables group members to revisit discussions and decisions, and is a document that helps non-attendees (e.g., missing group members, supervisors, the public) know what was discussed and decided within the meeting.
Effective meeting minutes include the following:
- Date, location, time (start/stop), participants in attendance and those absent.
- Detailed account of significant discussion points and decision(s) made.
Minutes should be written for an audience needing to know what was discussed at a meeting. You dont have to capture everything everyone said in the meeting (like a transcript), but you should capture the essence of the discussion.
Good Example: The group talked about various types of fundraising events, and narrowed its focus to those that have a low overhead and are family friendly. Ideas that will be explore more fully include a fun run/walk, block party, and pony rides.
Bad Example: The group talked about fundraising.
3. Action items.
Things that need to be done by meeting participants after the meeting need to be called out and identified as action items. Each action item should include the task, who is responsible for the task, and when the task will be done.
Action item: All participants will write up a personal bio and submit it to HR by June 2, 2020.
Action item: Ted will contact the legal department to get guidelines for our new policy and email the information to the group by next Tuesday.
4. Next steps
Summary of plans and procedures for the group.
Example: Members will work on their action items, and come to the next meeting ready to share out with committee. Committee chair will schedule the next meeting, and circulate the draft minutes for review and approval.
Recording minutes during the meeting
Recording communication in “real time” during a meeting is definitely a skill that takes practice. Below are some suggestion that help minute takers stay on track during the meeting:
1.Get the agenda
Before the meeting, get an agenda from the meeting facilitator so you can prepare yourself for the topics, and make a template to fill in during the meeting.
2. Decide what method of transcription works best for you
Some people like to record minutes on their computer during a meeting, while others like to take notes on paper. Decide what method works best for you. If you are considering tape-recording the meeting to help you fill in details when crafting the actual minutes, you should get consent from the meeting participates. Some states (e.g., Washington State) have informed consent laws about tape recording people.
3. Have plenty of space to record notes
Whether you chose to create a template based on the agenda or not, you will want to make sure you have plenty of room to record your minutes. Not everything you write down will go into your finalized minutes, but a good minute taker captures as much as they can during the meeting.
4. Record facts, not interpretations
While taking minutes you want to make sure that you record what people say, not how you feel about their statements. For example, you would write “Stacey suggested we all donate money to the food bank” as opposed to “Stacey had the ridiculous idea that everyone donate to the food bank.
5. Focus on major issues, actions and decisions, not on every comment made.
Your goal is to capture the bases of the discussion, not create a transcript. Action items need to be detailed and specific, but the rest of the minutes can summarize the general gist of the discussions.
6. Make sure you have the meeting participants and their names recorded accurately before the meeting adjourns .
In summary, sloppy minutes degrade the value of the work and time people invest together. They can also weaken a group’s morale. Professional minutes, on the other hand, may even make people who weren’t at a meeting wish they had been—although that’s perhaps asking a lot, unless you served pizza!—and can strengthen your group’s pride and solidarity.
In this chapter we have reviewed mechanisms and approaches to handling meetings. We have explored the purposes of meetings and discovered that alternatives to meetings can often yield satisfactory results within a group. We have reviewed specific steps in planning, facilitating, and following up after meetings.
- Identify a group of which you’re a member. What percentage of its meetings in the past year do you feel contributed significantly to its stated objectives? What role did pre-meeting planning play in producing that outcome?
- Think about a time when a group you were part of canceled or postponed a meeting. On what grounds did it reach that decision? Why do you approve or disapprove of the decision?
- What do you consider to be the pros and cons of limiting the number of people invited to a group meeting?
- Which instances of “Trouble in River City” have you experienced in group meetings? Describe two or three such instances. What action might the group leader have taken to prevent or resolve the episodes?
- Some cultures value exact punctuality differently from others. If you were leading a series of meetings comprising members of several cultural groups, what steps, if any, would you take to accommodate or modify people’s habits and expectations concerning the starting and ending times of the meetings?
- Imagine that you’re the new chairperson of a group which got seriously off track in the first of its meetings that you presided over. You tried gently redirecting people to discuss pertinent issues, but they first ignored and then resisted your attempts. What steps might you take to address the situation?
- If you’ve participate in a virtual meeting which reached a decision of some sort, what elements of the medium do you feel contributed positively to making the decision? What elements, if any, made it more challenging for you to achieve your aims?
- Think of a problem at your college that you and some of your fellow students feel needs to be addressed. Imagine that you’ve been told you have two weeks to present a proposal to the president of the college for remedying the problem. Draft an agenda for as many meetings as you feel would be necessary to involve the proper people in confronting the problem. Describe how the meetings would take place, including what rules you would follow, who would be invited, and what specific items would be dealt with in what sequence.
- Review the minutes of 3–4 recent meetings of a local governmental agency such as a city council or parks commission. What portion of the text in each set of minutes, if any, do you feel could be eliminated without diminishing the effectiveness of the documents as records of the meetings? Write up a revised version of one of the sets of minutes which most efficiently conveys what was important in the meeting.
- Pay special attention to conversations you carry on over the next several days in school and at home. Pick one of them and write simulated minutes according to the format shown in this section. What did you learn from this process about distilling and summarizing information from oral interactions?
- Locate a website of an academic, business, or civic organization which includes minutes of a recent meeting by some of its members. Identify portions of the minutes that you feel would enable you as a member of the group to adequately understand an important action taken by the group if you were unable to attend the meeting. If you were part of the group, what improvements would you make in the format of its minutes to further enhance their effectiveness?
Books and Articles
Mosvick, R.K., & Nelson, R.B. (1996). A guide to successful meeting management. Indianapolis, IN: Park Avenue. Includes information about business meetings, along with suggestions on how to improve them.
Silberman, M. (1999). 101 ways to make your meetings active. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Provides fun activities and exercises to help prepare people to conduct meetings effectively.
Streibel, B.J. (2003). The manager’s guide to effective meetings. New York: McGraw-Hill. Includes advice on conducting virtual meetings, as well as useful examples and checklists related to meeting management.
Facilitation at a Glance; Ingred Bens
A wonderful pocket guide to facilitation, filled with tools and techniques useful to both novice and advanced facilitators. Great set of tools for problem solving.
Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making; Sam Kaner
An excellent resource for ideas on facilitation, with a focus on decision-making tools and techniques. The book includes excellent illustrations, which can be reproduced to help explain facilitation concepts to others.
Other Meeting Design and Facilitation Resources
The International Association of Facilitators (IAF)
The IAF promotes, supports and advances the art and practice of professional facilitation through methods exchange, professional growth, practical research, collegial networking and support services.
Interaction Associates is the creator and distributor of the Mastering Meetings: Tools for Collaborative Action and Essential Facilitation classes which MIT is licensed to teach. The Tips and Techniques section at their Web site is particularly useful.
A Brief Introduction to Robert’s Rules of Order
In the previous section we discussed a number of planning and facilitation guidelines for running effective meetings. This section describes a system of formal rules called “parliamentary procedure” which can be helpful in more formal meetings (e.g., board meetings).
Why Parliamentary Procedure?
It’s easy to make fun of individuals or groups who follow procedures “to the letter,” especially in a country like the United States where we at least say that we prize spontaneity and self-determination. When it comes to most groups you work in or lead as a student or employee, you’ll probably be able to get away with conducting their meetings fairly informally, or even “by the seat of your pants.” In such groups—“among friends,” as it were—parliamentary procedure may seem boring or unnecessary. You may just assume, for instance, that you’ll observe the will of the majority in cases of disagreement and that you’ll keep track of what you do by taking a few simple notes when you get together.
But what about when you’re you’re elected president of a community service group like Kiwanis or Rotary? Or when you become an officer in a professional society? Under those circumstances, you’ll have entered a “deliberative assembly”—a body that considers options and reaches decisions—and you’ll benefit from knowing at least the rudiments of parliamentary procedure in order to fulfill your duties within it. When you’re in charge of running such a group’s meetings, you should be able to ensure that things run smoothly, efficiently, and fairly. As odd as it sounds, under those circumstances you’ll probably actually find that imposing regulation on the group is necessary to preserve its freedom to act.
On a very practical level, parliamentary procedure can help you answer these common, important questions as you lead a meeting:
- Who gets to speak when, and for how long?
- What do we do if our discussion seems to be going on and on without any useful results?
- When and how do we make decisions?
- What do we do if we’re not ready yet to say yes or no to a proposal but need to move on to something else in the meantime?
- What do we do if we change our minds?
Learning some parliamentary procedure promises at least two personal benefits, as well. First, you’ll probably discover that the structures you become familiar with through using parliamentary procedure boost your confidence in general. Second, you’re apt to find that you’ve laid the foundations for establishing yourself as a solid, reliable leader. Third, although you shouldn’t be stricter or more formal than is good for your group, using parliamentary procedure regularly and as a matter of course should contribute to the impression that you care about consistency, equity, and efficiency in your dealings with other people in general.
Background of Robert’s Rules
Henry Martyn Robert was an engineer who rose to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army and first put together his Rules of Order in 1876. His aim was to keep that publication to 50 pages, but its first edition contained 176 pages. The eleventh edition now runs nearly four times as long—more than 650 pages. This current edition, abbreviated as “RONR” (Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised), was formulated by a team of parliamentarians which includes Robert’s grandson.
A shorter summary, also prepared in part by Henry Martyn Robert III, comprises the most important features of RONR. It includes the contention that “at least 80 percent of the content of RONR will be needed less than 20 percent of the time” in even the largest, most complicated groups . Robert’s rules of order newly revised, in brief. Philadelphia: Da Capo Press.). Thus, a formal group which adopts RONR as its parliamentary authority may decide to use the summary volume to help it get through most common operational situations, since the summary’s sections are all linked item-by-item to more detailed portions of RONR itself.
Ingredients of RONR
Robert’s Rules offers guidance for all the essential processes a group is apt to conduct. It suggests that a group select a chairperson (“chairman” in Robert’s original language) and a secretary, that it decide on what proportion of its membership constitutes a quorum and is thus able to conduct substantive business, and that it follow at least a “simplified standard order of business” which may be as straightforward as this:
- Reading and approval of minutes. Deciding whether notes of the previous meeting, generally taken by the group’s secretary, can be accepted as written or need to be modified.
- Reports. Statements by officers and heads of committees, along with any recommendations associated with them. For instance, the finance committee of a student government association might propose that the association as a whole spend money from a particular budget to send a student representative to a professional conference or purchase new bookkeeping software for the association’s treasurer.
- Unfinished business. Some groups use the term “old business” in this part of their agendas and allow members to bring up any topics that have occupied the body’s attention throughout its history, but RONR discourages this. Instead, it insists that “unfinished business” be restricted to items which were left incomplete at the conclusion of the previous meeting or which were scheduled to be considered in the previous meeting but could not be because of insufficient time and were therefore specifically postponed to the next one.
- New business. This part of a meeting revolves around motions introduced by members and considered by the group as a whole.
Although a bare-bones standard order of business may satisfy the requirements of RONR, most groups decide to make use of an agenda such as the ones we’ve discussed in earlier sections of this chapter. Such agendas, if and when they are approved by groups at the outset of their meetings, may be individualized to name the persons who are to give reports and make recommendations. They may also include timelines that refer to specific topics, offer background information, and say when breaks will take place. RONR recognizes that every group has a personality of its own and should have the flexibility to express that personality through a well-crafted agenda tailored to meet its needs.
Generally speaking, RONR specifies that decisions about proposals should be made as soon as possible after the proposals are made. For instance, if a recommendation is made during an officer’s report, it should be handled at that time.
Nothing may be decided in RONR unless a motion—a formal proposal put forth orally by a participant in the meeting—has been made. The proper way to submit a motion is to say, “I move that…” (not “I make a motion that…”). Some groups may decide that any motion raised by a member will be deliberated, but RONR requires that nearly all motions receive a second before the chairperson can proceed with the next step. That step is for the chairperson to “state the question”—that is, announce to the group that a motion has been made and seconded and is open for debate. Details on exceptions to this process can be found in RONR itself, but the basic reason for requiring a second is to ensure that more than a single individual would like to consider a proposal.
Assuming that the person who submits a motion has done so according to the procedures of the group, the motion is considered to be pending, and its initial form it is referred to as the “main motion.” The chairperson is responsible for soliciting and guiding debate about any motion.
In the course of debate, the main motion may be amended or withdrawn, in part according to subsidiary motions and in part according to the will of the person who originally proposed it. It’s also possible for a group to refer a matter to a subgroup or postpone discussion of it to a set time.
Generally, members should be recognized by the chairperson in the order in which they make it clear that they wish to speak. RONR stipulates that a speaker has up to 10 minutes each time he or she speaks and that the speaker isn’t permitted to “save” time or transfer it to another person. If a motion being considered in a large group is particularly controversial, the chairperson should make an effort to recognize proponents and opponents back and forth so as to ensure balance in the presentations.
When debate ceases on a motion, the chairperson should say “The question is on the adoption of the motion that…” and put the question to a vote of the membership. When the vote has been observed or tallied, the chairperson announces which side “has it”—that is, which side has won the vote. He or she then declares that the motion has been adopted or lost and indicates the effect of the vote, as necessary.
For instance, someone in a student committee might move that $250 be spent toward sending Jamie, its vice president, to a conference in New York City. After the motion has been seconded and debated, you as the chairperson might call for a vote and announce afterward, “The ‘ayes’ have it. The motion carries, and Jamie will receive $250 toward expenses for the trip to New York. Jamie, you’ll need to talk to Cameron, our treasurer, to get a check cut for you in advance of your travel.”
The point of following Robert’s Rules is to preserve order, decorum, and civility so that a group can make wise decisions. RONR allows a group’s chairperson to rule people’s comments out of order if the comments are irrelevant (not “germane”) or are considered to be personal attacks.
Robert’s Rules even makes provisions for group members to avoid direct attack. It attempts to accomplish this by allowing members of a group to refer to each other in the third person—e.g., “the previous speaker” or “the treasurer”—rather than by using each other’s names. Unfortunately, in long-established organizations such as the US Congress people sometimes get away with incivility even within such tight interpretations of the strictures of RONR. Consider the story, which may or may not be historically accurate, of two US Senators. Senator Smith had just spoken passionately in favor of earmarking funds to build a bridge across a certain river in his state. Senator Jones said, “That’s ridiculous. We don’t need a bridge there. I could pee halfway across that river!” Senator Smith retorted, “The previous speaker is out of order!” to which Senator Jones replied, “I suppose I am. Otherwise I could pee all the way across it.”
How punctiliously a particular group observes the requirements of RONR will depend on the group’s purposes, its level of formality, and sometimes even on the personalities of its members and leaders. One statewide college faculty organization in the Pacific Northwest prides itself on operating according to what it jocularly calls “Bobby’s Rules of Order,” although its bylaws stipulate that it is governed by RONR. The faculty organization has found for nearly 40 years that it can achieve its aims and maintain civility without observing many of the official trappings of RONR. Your group, on the other hand, may want and need the consistency and specificity of RONR to get its work done.
In any case, knowing the basic nature of Robert’s Rules and how to get guidance on its finer points can be advantageous to anyone who wants to promote efficient operations and decision-making by a group. In addition to referring to Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief, you may want to consult the website of the American Institute of Parliamentarians at for further information.
- Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (RONR), a thorough and well-established system of parliamentary procedure, can be followed in greater or lesser detail as a group attempts to ensure civility, fairness, and efficiency in the conduct of its business.
- Watch a broadcast on C-SPAN television of either the opening of a session of the US House of Representatives or of debate on legislation in the House or Senate. What specialized terms or forms of address did you hear which fit with your understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order? What function did those terms or forms of address fulfill?
- Locate a meeting agenda for a student group or employee committee on your campus. To what degree do its contents differ from the simplified standard order of business described in this section? Why do you think the organizers of the meeting modified the standard order as they did?
- Draft an agenda for a meeting of an imaginary student group and share it with 2–3 fellow students. Explain why you structured your agenda the way you did.
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- (Robert, Evans, Honemann, & Balch, 2011, p. 6Robert, H.M., Evans, W.J., Honemann, D.H., & Balch, T. J. (2011) ↵
- Robert, H.M., Evans, W.J., Honemann, D.H., & Balch, T. J. (2011). ↵