A 19th Century Process called: Robert’s Rules of Order

“Professional Meetings are a continuing source of frustration both to the participants and to those counting on the outcomes.”


While a lot of people have written guidelines on proper conduct of meetings, Robert’s Rules of Order (RRO) is unquestionably the most successful de facto standard ever published on this subject and although an American institution since 1878, has been imitated and adopted internationally to a surprising degree. This standard covers three important areas:

  1. The intent and objective of parliamentary derived rules

  2. Instructions and responsibilities for the conduct of meetings

  3. An ordered and comprehensive process for conducting business in a meeting.

As is the case with any process oriented standard, an identifiable cottage industry of resistance to Robert has emerged using the same type of arguments that systems engineers frequently hear in opposition to many other process improvement efforts or methods. This thought alone should be enough reason for us to review Robert’s basic ideas and try to understand why RRO has become so successful in spite of his detractors.

Robert was seeking ways to manage meetings. He examined the parliamentary law and procedure that was practiced in large governing bodies and especially that provided to the United States Congress by Thomas Jefferson. According to one source, these laws were designed to protect:[1]

  1. The right of the majority to decide

  2. The right of the minority to be heard

  3. The rights of individual members

  4. The rights of absentees

Additionally, parliamentary procedure embraces the requirement to protect and carefully balance the rights of the organization, subgroups and individual members.

Roberts cut through the complexities of parliamentary law by restating it all in just ten declarations.

These are:

  1. The rights of the organization supersede the rights of individual members.

  2. All members are equal and their rights are equal.

  3. A quorum must be present to do business.

  4. The majority rules.

  5. Silence is consent

  6. A 2/3 vote rule to limit or take away rights of members or change something that has already been decided.

  7. One question at a time and one speaker at a time.

  8. Debatable motions must receive full debate

  9. Once a question is decided, it is not in order to bring up the same motion or one essentially like it at the same meeting.

  10. Personal remarks in debate are always out of order.

The meeting members must execute defined duties to follow the ten laws. RRO develops the following duties:

  1. All meeting participants must obey the rules.

  2. Presiding officer (chairman)-

    a. Maintains order

    b. Starts on time and has agenda

    c. Is organized

    d. Teaches when required

    e. Controls the floor

    f. To accomplish the above, the president must be impartial,

    composed, precise, focused, and temperate.

To accomplish the above, the president must be impartial, composed, precise, focused, and temperate.

The participants’ duties are to be prepared for the meeting and speak only when recognized by the presiding officer and normally address only to the issues in debate.

The actual conduct of the meeting follows a process that involves ordered debate and voting. Terminology and procedure are followed to prevent a lapse in the enforcement of the ten basic rules. In large organizations with many factions, the rules take on a complexity that is necessary to prevent confusion and miscarriage of the meeting purpose. Robert recognized that these rules needed to be tailored to each organization and thus could be considered as an early practitioner of Systems Engineering techniques.

What then, is our relationship to RRO beyond the professional interest in making rules about rules? The relationship is that virtually every non-profit organization (NPO) in the US, including INCOSE, mandates RRO in its charter or bylaws as the process for conducting meetings.

Does this mean that every meeting echoes with motions and formalities? No, of course not. What it does mean is that the rules are followed when any of the ten principles comes under risk of compromise. Usually, the chairman is the first to note an issue and impose the RRO process on the meeting.

It stands to reason that one cannot impose formality where there is no familiarity with RRO among the membership. For this reason, a parliamentarian is often included in the duties for the meeting so as to instruct and judge issues of procedure for the proper flow of business. It is interesting to note that two of the three parliamentarians who edited subsequent editions of RRO reside in Baltimore, MD while the third is from Washington, DC.

The Chesapeake INCOSE BOD uses RRO and our members receive a briefing that includes the fundamental rules and concepts so that they are able to participate and vote properly. [2] Minutes of each meeting are recorded and the records available to the membership. While we do not have a parliamentarian, one is available to support our meetings if divisive issues arise.

The pressure to shelve Robert’s work is ongoing. Human nature is always seeking the easiest path and it is not uncommon for an NPO board to discuss abandoning the pesky and inconvenient process from the charter. Given Colonel Roberts 132 years of successfully dominating the meeting room, its not likely that any membership would be foolish enough to abandon it or that a better method for guiding an organization will be competing with his masterpiece soon.

Please take a moment to examine Roberts in more detail starting with the Roberts Rules of Order site. His legacy appears to be in good hands including those of his own descendants. This is mandatory for any systems engineer who aspires to the study of process development or improvement methods. The “we don’t need process” crowd is endemic to corporate America and could in a light-hearted way be related to the message in several currently running ads for ORKIN pest control products.





[1] Roberts Rules in Plain English, Doris P. Zimmerman, Harper Collins Publishers, 1997, pp 5-6.

[2] Bylaw XII, section 7. Of the Chesapeake Constitution and Bylaws. “Robert’s Rules of Order- Revised shall determine the conduct of business in all meeting of the CSPK, its governing body and committees, except when inconsistent with this Constitution and Bylaws.

Musings, BlogGeorge Anderson