As a 20 year veteran of Corporate America, I have been to my fair share of meetings.  I am not saying this to brag - quite the contrary!  


If I may be completely honest, a vast majority of these meetings are a complete waste of my time.  The typical 'internal meeting' in a large corporation is called by somebody uncomfortable in making a decision on his/her own.  The first 10 minutes of the meeting are spent trying to get the PowerPoint projector working or getting participants sorted out on a conference call.  This is followed by the presentation of 20 generic PowerPoint Slides (which are read out loud by the presenter).  As this is happening, most people take notes or check email on their iPhones.  Every few slides, the Group will take a detour along some tangential train of thought, which is invariably cut short by one of the participants asking to "take this offline" or, more recently, "can we put that in the parking lot".  The PowerPoint presentation ends, the lights come back on, people rub their eyes and it becomes clear (based on the quality of the ensuing discussion) that those who appeared to be taking notes were actually planning grocery lists for their trip home.  The meeting ends 5 minutes late after somebody else knocks on the meeting room door.  Call me cynical.

Every so often, there is a well run meeting that rekindles my faith in the effectiveness of this information-sharing-medium.  These meetings have a formal agenda that are sent out ahead of time which is circulated along with background reading (which enables the meeting participants to prepare ahead of time).  They stay on point through the meeting, then written 'action items' and minutes are circulated within 24 hours.  Several terms at these meetings have a 16th century Shakespearian feel to them ("all in favour, say eye"), but I can see past the quirkiness to appreciate the efficiency of the format.  This got me to wondering about the "rules of engagement" for these formal meetings.

Robert's Rules of Order

It turns out that a protocol for formal meetings was developed in 1867.  "Robert's Rules of Order" were conceived by Brigadier General Henry Robert and were loosely based on the prevailing rules for the US House of Representatives.  Robert's interest in the subject came after presiding over a Church meeting in 1863, which must have felt like "herding cats" because his 1867 edition was nearly 700 pages.  The rules are updated periodically, with the 11th Edition now in print.

The Summary Version

It is impossible to condense 669 pages into 600 words, however here are the essentials:

  • The Meeting begins with a Call to Order by the Chairperson (referred to as Mr/Mrs Chair)
  • In order for the meeting to continue, a minimum representation is required (to make decisions that bind the company).  This is referred to as obtaining 'quorum'.  The criteria for achieving quorum depends on the organization (can range from 50% to 100% of the members of a Committee)


  • Each of the agenda items would have been raised by a member of the meeting (the "Mover") and is stated in a matter that requires a vote from the Group (e.g. a Budget be adopted or a specific Vendor be selected).  To begin discussion on each item (also know as a "Motion"), the Chairman ensures that this is worthy of discussion by asking for a second person to vouch for the fact that the motion is relevant (the "Seconder").  If Seconded, the motion is discussed and a way forward is proposed/voted upon.
  • A new Motion can not be made until the first Motion has been dealt with, unless there is a:
    • Motion to Amend - If, through the course of discussion, it becomes clear that the original Motion requires modification, it can be changed
    • Motion to Table - push the matter until the next meeting, presumably to gather additional information
    • Motion to Refer - very similar to the Motion to Table, except that additional time is required to obtain advice on a specific issue
    • Motion to Call the Question - after discussing an issue, Calling the Question ends all discussion so that a vote can be taken.  If somebody object to this and requests additional dialogue, the Chair will call for a "Second" and a vote can be taken on whether to call for a vote or keep the discussion open.
  • After the vote has been taken, a member can make a "Motion to Reconsider", which requires a "seconder" and reopens the debate.  
  • To end a meeting, a Motion to Adjourn is made 

Other Definitions

As a Motion is being discussed, there are rules limiting the number of times each person can speak (which the Chair may override).  To make sure that each person is providing factual and relevant information, anybody may interrupt the "Speaker" with:

  • Point of Information: If you would like to ask the Speaker a specific question.
  • Point of Order: If anybody has broken the rules or misrepresented the facts, a Point of Order must be raised immediately after the error is made.
  • Informal Consideration: Move that the meeting go into "Committee of the Whole", which suspends the formality of the normal rules and allows a more free-flowing debate on an issue. 

In Conclusion

As you advance in your career, you will need to develop an understanding Robert's Rules of Order.  Every Board that I have been involved has used these rules to varying extents.  The intent of this article is to explore the rules and formality behind effective meetings.  I don't intend to use Robert's Rules of Order at my next Department meeting, but I will continue to run effective meetings by using an Agenda, facilitating meaningful debate on issues, assigning action items and holding people accountable for delivering on their commitments. 

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