Beyond Bob – Why we should consider alternatives to Robert’s Rules
Updated: Aug 15
Guest post and doodle by Daryl Yankee
It’s your first board meeting and you are ready to contribute your time, talent, and expertise in service to your favorite cause. The president calls the meeting to order and after a few pleasantries (and hopefully an introduction for new members) they dive in.
There is a motion to end a program made by the retired banker. The CFO from the local healthcare monolith immediately seconds. There is a request to clarify from the owner of the organic bakery. The request is summarily dismissed. Next a call for a vote. “All in favor say Aye!” and the room is suddenly filled with sailors. The president then mumbles “any objections [split-second pause] hearing none” and bang – the motion is approved, leaving you to wonder what significant action did you just rubber stamp?
Welcome to Robert’s Rules of Order. Army Officer Henry Robert didn’t set out to create a stiff and stuffy structure that perpetuates existing power imbalances. He was frustrated by the confusion and inefficiency of the meetings he attended and offered up a framework for conducting business and making decisions in a fair, orderly, and efficient manner.
So what went wrong? Enforced in a way that privileges those who are more familiar with them or have more experience with parliamentary procedure, Robert’s Rules can disproportionately advantage individuals who have had more opportunities for education and professional development. This often correlates with socioeconomic, gender, and racial advantages. Robert’s Rule’s aren’t inherently evil, but in the hands of board presidents and committee heads untrained in utilizing them, they earn their reputation as a stale artifact.
So why use them? Though not legally binding, Robert's Rules are designed to facilitate a fair and equitable process for debate and to document decisions.
What can we use instead? If you have a decision-making procedure that engages everyone, you have your bases covered. Written minutes or recordings of virtual meetings of whatever structure you use to govern should suffice if the lawyers come knocking. There are alternative frameworks such as Open Space, Appreciate Inquiry and Task Process, to name a few.
No matter which alternative you choose, it is critical that any facilitator interested in including all voices observes some basic rules:
Share the agenda and supporting materials in advance
Processors don’t like surprises. Give your members plenty of time and data to support informed opinions and decisions.
Know your people and how to encourage participation
Do you know each members preferred method of communication? Do you know which are the dogs (barking and clawing for consensus) and which are cats (sitting back and silently preparing a response)? Check in with them and discover ways they can express themselves authentically and safely.
Establish ground rules
What does meaningful participation look like? Are there values and norms that the group agrees should guide discussion? Consider drafting and revising these on a regular basis so they reflect changes in the culture as you invite new experiences and perspectives to the table.
Include everyone and be sensitive to cultural differences, varying abilities, and neurodiversity.
Avoid insider jargon and don’t assume everyone “is on the same page”. Share meanings behind acronyms and trade speak with new members. Provide visual aids and respectful accommodation. Allow breaks for members who are sensitive to overstimulation.
Facilitate robust decision-making
Don’t rush through the agenda. Be prepared to put a pin in a proposal and revisit once more information has been gathered. Did you know a majority of board members report that over 90% of decisions are unanimous? Encourage dissent and leave time for quieter voices to be herd (pun intended).
Allow for alternative forms of participation
Virtual attendance or participation via chat or messaging allows neurodiverse individuals to offer input and render an opinion in a way that is comfortable for them.
How did decisions land? Is there any additional input from processors that should be shared with the group? If there is resistance, don’t be afraid to revisit the subject with the benefit of perspective and new information.
We are exploring alternative meeting structures that move beyond Bob. Ready to edit the power imbalance supported by artifacts like Robert’s Rules and other structures that silence voices? Write your own rule book that makes space for everyone!
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Daryl Yankee and I are co-leading a breakout session on alternatives to Robert's Rules at the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits in September 2023. Learn more about the conference.
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Daryl Yankee grew up in the Blackstone Valley, cradle of the Industrial Revolution. When he wasn’t fishing in streams full of forever chemicals, he was exploring the ruins of manufacturing monoliths that ground men into grist then spit out textiles for the masses.
As “a fixer”, Daryl has facilitated strategic changes for a host of Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the country. During his time at the Humane Society, he earned a master’s degree in Organization Development from Pepperdine University. It was there he learned to initiate process improvement through dialogue and inquiry.
These days Daryl serves as a board member for the Minnesota Council of Non-Profits and an independent consultant, using visual harvesting and facilitation to create connection through all-inclusive formats, welcoming all styles of learners into the decision-making process. Dogs and Cats working together, that’s what Daryl does.
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