Robert’s Rules: Using an Agenda to Produce Better Meetings
It’s 7 p.m. on Tuesday night. You’re attending the regular monthly meeting of your neighborhood association. Your president, Prissy Gardner (who was elected because nobody else wanted the job), is ready to start the meeting. Prissy’s really a stickler when it comes to keeping the petunias watered at the front entrance to your neighborhood, but she thinks the board is just one big beautification committee. So, she starts the meeting off by going over last month’s minutes — well, just the part about the new flowerbed she wants. When she gets through with that, she starts talking about the possibility of spending some money on a sprinkler system.
In spite of the great organizational tools and techniques available in Robert’s Rules, for some reason meetings happen all the time in which presiding officers like Prissy fly by the seat of their pants — going over last month’s minutes, rehashing old decisions, interspersing real discussions with commentary, and suppressing anybody who tries to move things along.
If you’re unlucky enough to be a member of one such organization, then you already know the importance of knowing how to make a meeting run with a reasonable amount of dispatch. If not, then the future is now for anyone who can be efficient and effective when it comes to running meetings.
Understanding the agenda
You know the only way to get the most out of your time is to spend it wisely, and you want to make every second you have count. When it comes to meetings, the way to be efficient and effective simultaneously is to prepare and make good use of an agenda.
An agenda is essentially a program or listing of the events and items of business that will come before the meeting. It may be a detailed program covering several meetings in a session, or it may be a short list of the items of business to be handled in a routine board meeting. The agenda may (but doesn’t have to) indicate the hour for each event, or it may just show the total time allotted to each item.
The agenda may be adopted (that is, be made binding on the meeting), or it may simply be a guide to keep the meeting on track. Adopting your agenda is sometimes a good idea because it gets everybody in agreement with the meeting plan at the beginning of the meeting.
Robert’s Rules’ basic agenda
Robert gives us an order of business but doesn’t mandate any particular agenda. However, he does give us an agenda protocol that has been so widely used that it’s almost universally accepted as a fundamental meeting plan. Not everything in the agenda shown here is necessary in every situation, and your agenda may even need to be more extensive and detailed. But in its own right, this basic agenda is a great arrangement of events, consistent with the standard order of business discussed throughout this chapter; you can find it at the heart of just about every good business meeting you ever attend.
Call to order
When the time comes, start the meeting on time. A single rap of the gavel at the appointed hour and the declaration, “The meeting will come to order” is sufficient. You can’t finish on time if you don’t start on time, and everybody knows when the meeting starts. A good chairman is known for starting meetings on time and will always be respected for doing so.
Your group may customarily open meetings with an invocation and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Maybe you sing a hymn or the national anthem. The protocol is “God before country” (meaning you invoke the deity before you salute the flag), so plan to make your invocation before you say the Pledge. This part of the agenda is also the place to include any special opening fraternal rituals, a greeting given by one of your officers, or anything else that might reasonably fall under the category of ceremony. You don’t have to use it, of course, and in many types of meetings, you’ll skip this item.
If your group is a public body, or if you have a rule that certain officers must be in attendance before the meeting can proceed, this is the time to call the roll. But if you don’t have a rule requiring it, you shouldn’t waste your time on this item.
This item isn’t used often, except in specialized organizations such as public legislative bodies or a large professional society’s house of delegates. A consent calendar quickly processes a lot of noncontroversial items that can be disposed of quickly by placing them on a list (the consent calendar) of items to be adopted all at once. The list can also contain special preference items to be considered in order at the appropriate time. This consent calendar is usually placed in an order of business by a special rule of order, and its placement is generally of relatively high rank.
Standard order of business
Everything on the agenda outside of the standard order of business is really just ancillary to the meeting. All the business really begins with the approval of the minutes, and ends when you’re finished with any new business.
Good of the order
This is a time set aside for members to offer comments or observations (without formal motions) about the society and its work. The good of the order is also the time to offer a resolution to bring a disciplinary charge against a member for offenses committed outside of a meeting.
This portion of the basic agenda sets aside time for officers (and members, when appropriate) to make announcements. However, the fact that this is an agenda item does not prevent the chair from making an emergency announcement at any time.
If you’re offering some other general presentation of interest to your members, whether it’s a film, a guest speaker, a lecturer, or any other program, it should be presented before the meeting is adjourned. If you would rather conduct the program at some other place in the agenda, it may be scheduled to take place before the minutes are read or, by suspending the rules, inserted within the standard order of business.
Guest speakers are often on tight schedules, so it’s quite proper for the chair to ask for unanimous consent to place the program at any convenient place on the agenda, even if the only convenient place is within the order of business.
This part of the agenda marks the end of the meeting — time to go home. But don’t leave until the chair declares the meeting adjourned, or you may just miss something important.