Robert’s Rules of Order

If you’ve served on a board or committee, you’re probably familiar with Robert’s Rules of Order. But where did they come from and how did they come to be the standard structure for deliberation? Let’s find out in this installment of All About It — a series where we dive deep into the topics that fascinate us.

Born 1837 in Robertville, South Carolina, General Henry Martyn Robert was an Army engineer who served in leadership roles on many civil and religious organizations throughout his military career. After a particularly chaotic church meeting sparked his interest in parliamentary procedure, Robert learned that America lacked a set of generally-accepted rules for deliberation.

In 1876, he published the Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies (alternatively titled Robert’s Rules of Order). Today, Robert’s Rules, or some derivation thereof, are used by approximately 80% of organizations in the United States.

The fact that his rules have endured as the structural standard in parliamentary procedure after 142 years is a testament to their strength.

How It Works

Robert’s Rules divides members of a “deliberative assembly” into the majority, the minority, the individual, and the absentee. Each of these divisions has its own set of rights, and those rights mean everything. Every decision or “ruling” the assembly makes is determined by the majority with respect to the rights of the minority.

Deliberation is initiated by a series of proposals, or “motions”. Motions are then opened for debate before being put to a vote.

This is how Robert’s Rules work in a nutshell — and it’s a very small nutshell. In many cases, boards choose to hire certified parliamentarians to advise them on drafting bylaws and using Robert’s Rules to enhance their deliberations. The truth is, while the rules are very specific and incredibly complex, even the most basic understanding is often enough to benefit decision-makers.

Why It Works

If there’s anything to take away from our overview on how the rules work, it’s that they’re too complex to fully understand in a scant few paragraphs. But that takeaway also contributes greatly to why the rules work. Robert’s Rules are airtight. They leave no room for a group to be left scratching their collective heads as to how they should address a given situation. If the boardroom caught fire while a meeting is in session, there are two different motions you could use to pause the proceedings before running for your life.

Another reason the rules have remained so popular over the years is the power it grants to the minority opinion. The minority can force the majority to deliberate. Forcing deliberation serves a few purposes. For one, it gives the minority the chance to become the majority if enough minds are changed. It also serves as a powerful tool for maintaining accountability.

The rules go a long way towards preventing the chaos Henry Martyn Robert experienced in that church so many years ago. The structure supports effective deliberation and paves the way for a concrete, unambiguous ruling. This makes it powerful. It accounts for everything, making it versatile. It also provides for the equal consideration of opposing opinions, making it fair. These three qualities have proven to be the biggest contributors to the rules’ popularity and continued use.

Changing Times

The manual of rules has been updated over the years. Each new edition aims to enhance existing rules, provide clarification, and more accurately reflect the changing times. Most recently, the 11th edition of Robert’s Rules, published in 2011, addressed the role of electronic communication (both teleconferencing and emails). The 10th edition, published 11 years earlier, was the first to acknowledge alternatives to the word “chairman” such as “chairwoman”, “chairperson”, and “chair”.

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While many of the changes seem inconsequential to the outside observer, extensive knowledge of Robert’s Rules can, in some instances, serve to steer deliberation over high stakes or highly polarizing items in a party’s favor.

While Robert’s Rules are the parliamentary authority for an overwhelming majority of U.S. organizations, there have been a few contenders to the throne over the years.

The use of alternative structures is often limited to a specific industry or type of organization. The Sturgis Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure is commonly used in organizations within the medical field. Demeter’s Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure is favored amongst labor unions.

However, the greatest vulnerability to Robert’s Rules may very well be the extent to which they account for the realities of modern communication. Advancements in technology have made us faster, but more impatient. They’ve also allowed board members to communicate and deliberate from anywhere in the world. To maintain its status as the national standard in parliamentary procedure, the rules must not only account for existence of these changes, but leverage them to strengthen and support the deliberative process.

Directorpoint is dedicated to advancing this new era of digital governance. Our smart, easy-to-use board management platform is designed to do everything that Robert’s Rules can’t (and some of what it can). We keep boards organized and engaged; communicating effectively and efficiently. To learn more about how directors are using our software in tandem with Robert’s Rules of Order, schedule a demo today.

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