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Robert's Rules of Order

My first exposure to Robert’s Rules of Order was in Grade 6. Our teacher, Mrs. Ayling, created a civics class. On the surface, we were an arm of the Canadian Red Cross trying to raise a little money for this charity. So every two weeks, we would have a half hour business meeting to decide on class activities to raise this money. Learning to be charitable was nice, but the real lessons were how to make a motion, how to second a motion, discuss the motion, take a vote, and effect the action of that vote.

Later in high school, our student council conducted our business in a similar way. And we were already trained, thanks to Mrs. Ayling.

Politics & Toastmasters

Fast forward a few years, and I found myself in the back rooms of party politics. In these meetings, we often used advanced motions from Robert’s Rules of Order. I kind of understood these rules, kind of not. While I was a little lost, I was still happy to be contributing to this part of our society.

I had ambitions of someday becoming an elected politician. But I knew my public speaking skills were not very good. So I joined a local Toastmasters club to improve these skills.

Public speaking is not the only skill learned at Toastmasters. Part of many Toastmaster’s meetings is the business session, which lasts about 20 minutes. Sometimes the club had legitimate business to do, and we used Robert’s Rules of Order (RRO) to make decisions. And Toastmasters promoted these business sessions as opportunities to get more skills in this part of civics. Each member had an opportunity to chair the business session several times a year, which kind of put us in a hot seat! But it was a great way to learn.

Often, the club did not have legitimate business to conduct for its business session. Rather than forego the business session, someone from the floor would introduce a fictitious motion for the club to deal with, like “I move to send a formal invitation to Wayne Gretsky to join our Toastmaster’s club.”

When these fictitious motions were put on the floor, this was a signal for other members to introduce higher ranking motions, which meant the original motion somehow became lost. The chair, using the RRO guide, figured out which motions ranked higher than others. Lower ranked motions introduced after higher ranked motions were ruled out of order. When a higher motion was decided on, the chair moved back to the previous lower ranked motion. It was a great game of stacking and unstacking motions in the right order. It was fun to put four or more motions on the floor to try stump the chair!

Being in politics I could easily see the relevance of Robert’s Rules of Order (RRO). So I spent a lot of self-study on this subject and had quite a few one-on-one chats with the professional parliamentarian of our Toastmasters club. RRO is an amazing and logical process. I could see that General Robert put an immense amount of thought into his rulebook. I understood why some motions were ranked higher than others. My RRO skills improved, and I relished the opportunity to chair a fictitious business meeting with other Toastmasters trying to stump me. And I was better able to participate in my real-life political meetings. Rather than being someone who was a little lost in the proceedings, I became a serious player and my influence improved.

Henry Martyn Robert

Henry Martin Robert was an officer in the US Army. He was trained as a civil engineer. As the legend goes, Robert was walking through a town in his military uniform. Town residents were conducting a contentious meeting and coming close to fistfights. They saw the uniform and agreed that Robert would be a good party to mediate the meeting. He agreed. But he could not resolve the dispute and realized that he didn’t have the skills to handle such a meeting.

But the experience did leave him thinking about what went wrong. He became interested in parliamentary procedures. One of the first things he discovered was that the local meetings used the same procedures as their state legislatures. But these procedures were beyond what many smaller organizations really needed, putting common people into a Byzantine maze of legalese. Plus the parliamentary procedures varied considerably from state to state. So a knowledgeable parliamentarian from New Hampshire would be relatively impotent if he went to a meeting in New York. Robert set out to create a rulebook that was more appropriate for non-legislative organizations and could be standardized across the United States.

When crafting his rules, Robert had three main principles to engineer into each kind of motion:

1. Efficiency in reaching a decision.

2. Letting the minority voice have a fair say.

3. Abiding by the will of the majority.

When first published in 1876, Robert’s Rules of Order was an instant hit. Many organizations quickly adopted it. RRO was widely used in the United States and Canada.

I believe that Robert’s Rules of Order had helped America become a powerful nation, even more so than any president of that era. Its three principles allowed Americans to settle fairly many civic and volunteer matters. When these matters were allowed to move forward, the economy and social structure improved. The rest of the political machinery only benefited from this great piece of social engineering.

Flaws with Robert’s Rules of Order 

1. It still takes an effort to understand RRO. Robert’s rules were quite simple in 1876, so it was easy for the early adopters to get the necessary knowledge to work within the rules. But the rules have been expanded since 1876, and it takes more effort to be knowledgeable. Those people who make this effort to study RRO are more influential than those who do not. Those who do not understand the rules are often sidelined, often leading to not contributing as much as they should—or just dropping out of the organization.

2. RRO can be used to hinder an opponent or opposing idea. I remember my political faction often meeting a day before the big meeting to figure out what procedures to employ to increase our chance of success in the big meeting.

3. RRO often feels cold and impersonal, causing further alienation.

Outside of Toastmasters’ meetings and politics, I have yet to see RRO being seriously employed. Most organizations say they follow RRO, but its members only use RRO in a very rudimentary manner. For example, when a particular agenda item comes up for discussion, the chair will just let members discuss the item. Some kind of consensus is reached. Someone puts that consensus into a formal motion, followed quickly by a formal vote, which is usually carried and often unanimously. In contrast, rigorous RRO requires first putting the motion forth, followed by the discussion, then the vote which has a more uncertain outcome.

Despite being so RRO oriented in our civic culture, we have moved towards a more consensus-building approach. This then begs the question: “Why are such organizations still ostensibly using RRO?”

I can see that if the organization has trouble reaching consensus, RRO can be called on as a last resort as a means to make the decision. For example, let’s say an organization is divided between Plan A and Plan B. RRO can be used to find that majority vote. But would most people at the meeting understand enough about RRO to carry the discussion to a fair vote? I believe so. But what if someone introduces a higher-ranking motion that delays that vote? The collective knowledge is just not there to really understand what is happening.

I have encountered a lot of people who say they understand the higher-ranking motions, but their understanding and mine are not the same. How do we resolve this difference internally? Often these procedures are settled by the person at the meeting who sounds more knowledgeable about RRO. This person may be a trained parliamentarian, a position which should be used for larger meetings. But often in smaller meetings, the expert is the one who convinces others that he or she knows more about RRO than other espoused experts.

And this may all be a moot point: in my experience, most situations have been handled reasonably well without rigorous application of RRO.

From my perspective, much of the world has already moved towards a more consultative style of decision-making. Why not just admit that RRO has become obsolete and move on to something better?

In Chapter 4 of my TDG book, I discuss one approach to attain consensus. I think this approach is better than applying Robert’s Rules of Order to today’s challenges. Like the Americans of 1876 learning a new way of collective decision making, maybe Americans of 2017 need to learn a new way.

Published in Writerbeat 2017

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