Ready to Kick Robert Off Your Board?

I was on a board call about a year ago. We were going to vote on a proposal that came from a committee. No one was sure of the exact order of what should happen. Did we need a motion? Did we need a second? When were we supposed to have discussion? We were trying to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, though no one was an expert in them. One person started telling us what we had to do, so we followed along. I went back later to look at that organization’s by-laws. They did not mention Robert’s Rules of Order. So, in fact we did not have to follow them.

Another time, I was in a meeting with someone who claimed to be an expert in Robert’s Rules, He reliably stifled discussion. “We have a motion on the floor so you cannot ask a question until we have a second.” You know the type. I’ve never read Robert’s Rules, so I don’t know if these people who say they are experts actually know what they say they know. I just know that I do not like overly strict rules. To me, it just does not feel like a good way to be making decisions.

Out of curiosity, I researched Robert’s Rules, thinking I might buy a copy. There is a new revised 12th Edition of Robert’s Rules that was released in 2020. According to Amazon, it is 816 pages. There are Robert’s Rules in Brief — clearly needed since who reads 816 pages? The Brief is only 224 pages (not sure I would describe that as brief). There is also a QuickStart Guide – only 85 pages.

I learned quite a bit about Henry Martyn Robert as well as about his Rules. Robert developed Robert’s Rules of Order – Wikipedia in 1876. He was white and male and in the military. The rules reflect his time and world view. They are based on parliamentary procedures – meant for legislatures and other large governing bodies. They are formal, inflexible, and complicated. Their language is old-fashioned. As I understand them, they were written as much to provide control as to promote democratic participation, giving the chair lots of power. They are also restrictive, for example, straw votes are not allowed. Discussion cannot be held until a motion is on the table and because a motion is essentially a solution, that leads to focusing on solutions before agreeing on problems. If your organization adopts Robert’s Rules, it is also easy to fail at them.

 Most important: I do not believe Robert’s Rules serve us well in our diverse society.

You Need Rules of Order – Just Not Necessarily Robert’s

I did some additional research and found a few sites that talk about other ways to run meetings, including Martha’s Rules of Order. I also bought a book called Roberta’s Rules of Order by Alice Collier Cochran. Admittedly, it is 302 pages but only the first two sections – 76 pages – focus on rules of order. The rest focus on other aspects of running meetings and governing organizations.

What did I learn from my research? Well first, your organization does not have to follow Robert’s Rules. For very large or public entities, they may be the best choice. For the rest of us, I don’t think so. (Note if Robert’s are in your by-laws, you would have to change your by-laws to use a different method. But I propose not putting anything in your by-laws.)

Second, I learned that it is important to agree upon rules of order. No one wants a free-for-all. No one wants meetings to go on forever. Both Roberta’s Rules and Martha’s Rules offer good suggestions for running meetings. I don’t personally agree with all of them. But that is the point. Each organization should decide how you want to decide. What works best for your organization will depend on the size of your group, how much time you have to decide, shared values, and trust. You can and should create clear rules that might be based on Robert’s or something totally new.

Goal: Productive Discussions that Lead to Good Decisions

As an organization, the first step is to agree on values and goals for decision-making. To me, the overarching goal is to allow a group of people to have productive and open discussions that lead to good decisions and actions. More specifically, I believe:

  • Everyone is allowed to speak if they want to.
  • Discussion should be productive and respectful.
  • Focus is on outcomes, not on process.
  • Closure must be reached in a reasonable amount of time.
  • Rules reflect your organization’s culture.
  • Everyone understands the rules that are being followed.

Ideas About Voting and Decision Making to Consider

I have pulled together some ideas about voting and decision making that you should consider when developing your own rules of order, selecting to use other’s rules, or modifying other’s rules.

Traditional Voting: Robert’s Rules and many rules of order use traditional voting. Board or committee members basically have two choices – they can accept the motion, or they can reject it. (In some cases, they can also abstain.) Using this traditional way of voting limits creative discussion of other alternatives.

Multiple Choice: In this situation, board or committee members may be presented with multiple choices. This could be used to eliminate some choices so discussion can focus on the most popular. Board members might also be presented with one option and be able to vote Yes, No, or Maybe – or Red (don’t support it), Green (in favor), or Yellow (maybe). These different ways of voting encourage discussion and allow concerns to be heard.

Straw Vote: While not allowed if your organization follows Robert’s Rules, I like straw votes. Basically, you take an unofficial vote – maybe straight up or down but more likely Yes, No, or Maybe. Doing this allows you to take the pulse of the group. Maybe everyone already supports the proposal, and you can move on. Maybe there is almost no support, and the proposal needs to be re-imagined. Or maybe some people have valid concerns that come out when they say Maybe.

Open or Anonymous Voting: Power dynamics are real, so I often recommend – especially with a straw vote – that some voting be done anonymously. Long-time, older board members may threaten younger, newer members. Rich, white people intimidate people of color or new immigrants or others who are less privileged. On committees, staff may not want to vote against a board member or a manager. Holding an anonymous straw vote can be enlightening.

Majority Rule: Your by-laws will define how many votes are needed to pass a motion. Usually this will be majority of those present. For important votes, such as removing a board member or changing by-laws, it may be two-thirds of those present. The advantage of Majority Rule is that you can make decisions quickly. Majority Rule is a problem when votes are very close. Those in the majority do not have an incentive to work with the minority or to compromise.

Unanimous Consensus Decision-Making: With Unanimous Consensus, you keep discussing until everyone agrees. The advantage is that everyone is invested in the decision. The disadvantages are that building consensus requires more time, that a single individual can wield lots of power by not agreeing, and that you can have a watered down result that no one is happy with.

General Consensus Decision Making: With General Consensus, you keep discussing until everyone either agrees or indicates that they can accept the decision even if they do not fully support it. The advantage over Unanimous Consensus is that decisions are less likely to be watered down.

Backup Plan: If you use either type of Consensus Decision-Making Process, you may need a back up plan. Some decisions need to be made in a certain time frame. So, if you cannot reach consensus after a specified time, you can have Majority Rule or Two-Thirds approval. Just decide the protocol ahead of time. Having a back up plan also keeps one person from blocking movement on a vote.

Quorum: Your organization’s by-laws will define a quorum, that is, how many members of your board or committee need to be present to hold a vote. Usually this is 50%. Sometimes it is less. Pay attention to quorum when voting on important topics. For example, say your quorum is 35% of your members. And you use majority rule, 50% plus one. A decision could be made by 50% of 35% or less than 20% of your members.  

Protocols: Your organization will want to adopt protocols or norms for meetings. Some ideas – no one speaks unless recognized by the chair or someone designated for this purpose. When meeting in person, have members turn their name cards on end to indicate they have something to say. You may want to limit how long an individual is allowed to speak. Motions are worded in plain language and spoken slowly so they can be easily recorded. Meeting materials are sent out at least a week in advance and members come to meetings prepared for discussion. Information sent out ahead of time will not be presented again in the meeting (the expectation is that everyone has read it).

Chair: Choose a board or committee chair who can control meetings. This person must be willing to stop people who speak too much, be comfortable with silence, and gently invite those who have not spoken to participate. This person must also be able to decide whether to continue with a healthy, productive discussion that has run over, table the topic until the next meeting in order to move to other topics, or call for a vote.

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