Think of the many hours you spend on planning for your system—things like budget forecasting, strategic planning, and disaster preparation. Do you put the same forethought into organizing your meetings? Probably not. Both board and committee meetings tend to be loosely thought-out and implemented by the seat of the pants.
This is unfortunate. Because, just as meticulous preparation leads to a seemingly effortless party, good meeting plans lead to better meetings.
BEFORE THE GAVEL STRIKES
Why meet at all? Some groups have to come together because statute or their governing documents require so many meetings per year. However, studies also show that many meetings are a waste of time. Generally, the best reasons for meeting as a group are for decision-making, problem solving, planning, and evaluation. By contrast, if the sole purpose of a meeting is to give information, there may be easier ways to accomplish that, such as via a letter or e-mail.
What are the desired outcomes? There’s a difference between discussing a reassignment plan and adopting one. Your meeting plan should reflect such differences. For example, if the desired outcome is to adopt a recommendation, you should arrange the meeting so there is a specific proposal, followed by discussion and a vote (with consideration on how to verify a close vote). To plan an effective agenda, it’s essential that you know your desired outcomes.
Who is responsible for each item on the agenda? Far too often, the presiding officer handles everything on the agenda. This is understandable, in that the chairman usually feels most responsible for a meeting’s success. However, meetings run more smoothly, are more inclusive, and likely will be more productive if you give other board members responsibilities as well. Even allowing a board member to report on a project can help prepare that member for future leadership roles. Also, you’re likely to have better attendance if people have a part on the agenda. And members are more likely to feel they’re an important part of the board if they do more than sit and listen.
Have you confirmed the setting? Meetings often fail not because of the items on their agenda, but because of the atmosphere in which they occur. Rooms that are too large or small, hot, cold, or noisy can affect participation. Plus, have you tested all the equipment—lectern, microphone, overhead projector—to make sure it won’t malfunction during an inopportune moment?
Even a room’s layout can drastically alter the atmosphere. Auditorium or “classroom” style seating, for example, usually leads to less participation by members. In contrast, an oval or circle arrangement invites discussion. That said, depending on the purpose of the meeting, an arrangement around a table can result in too much member participation. A compromise often used for board meetings is a horseshoe pattern, with the presiding officer at the leadership position at the open end. This layout encourages participation, but acknowledges the chair is running the meeting. While board meetings are often arranged based on what works best for the camera, the effect of room arrangement on participation should not be ignored.
Do you follow the standard order of business? The general outline in which business is taken up during a meeting is known as the “order of business.” Parliamentary procedure books, including Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th Edition), recognize a “standard” order of business, the sequence of which will vary depending on the type of meeting:
Have you created an effective agenda? As the structured order of business suggests, there’s nothing more important to a successful meeting than a well-planned agenda. At a minimum, a good agenda has a start and an end time for the meeting. Obviously, knowing in advance when the meeting will end requires careful planning and a review of every item on the agenda.
Some boards also like a start and end time for each individual item. (See “Sample Timed Agenda”) Such scheduling is a good idea if you’re trying to rein in long meetings or have several controversial items to be considered. If you do adopt a timed agenda, realize that the start and end points are locked in. When the designated time for finishing an item arrives, your presiding officer announces that the allotted time has elapsed; a vote is taken if the item is for action. Obviously, you can always vote to modify a timed agenda. By contrast, if you don’t adopt a timed agenda, any times listed next to your items of business are for guidance only.
Sample Timed Agenda
Should you require agenda items in advance? Some governing documents require that business items be submitted in advance. Without question, it helps in planning your agenda to know if there will be one or 10 business items. Plus, allowing items to be brought up on the fly can lead to poorly thought-out motions—and even if you require prior submission, you probably have a mechanism to suspend the rule on a case-by-case basis.
Is everyone prepared? Distribute the agenda and any documents needed for the meeting in advance, even if only by e-mail. In addition, make sure everyone on the agenda knows his or her role.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
Start on time. Delaying a meeting encourages members to be late and punishes those who were on time.
Stick to the agenda. Stay focused on your desired outcomes by using an agenda. An agenda—particularly a timed one—can keep the meeting from getting bogged down on one issue. If you’re using a timed agenda, stay on track by ending each item on time.
Have an endpoint. Similarly, to avoid unproductive tangents and circular discussions, establish an end time in advance—and adjourn the meeting when you reach it.
Preempt debate. Resolve non-controversial items through “general consent” or “unanimous consent.” Under this method, the presiding officer asks, “Is there any objection to...?”—for example, “Is there any objection to ending debate?” If no one objects, debate is closed. If a member objects, you can resolve the matter with a motion and vote. Otherwise, you can use general consent to adopt reports and motions, approve minutes, and end debate. In fact, try to place a “consent agenda” near the start of the meeting that includes all non-controversial items, such as adoption of the minutes. Any member can request that an item be removed from the consent agenda and placed on the regular agenda for consideration and vote. The remaining consent-agenda items are then unanimously approved as a unit without discussion.
Manage discussion. Set the discussion time prior to addressing potentially lengthy issues: “Is there a motion to limit total debate to 30 minutes?” (Such a motion requires a two-thirds vote.) And encourage new discussion—and prevent repetition—by asking for speakers who have not spoken.
Alternate pro and con. After hearing from a proponent, ask, “Is there anyone who wishes to speak against the motion?” When no one wishes to speak on a particular side, ask for unanimous consent to end debate: “Is there any objection to closing discussion? Hearing no objection, discussion is closed.” If people from both sides do continue to speak, pay attention to the length and quality of their remarks. When the discussion seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns, ask for a motion to end discussion: “Is there a motion to close debate?” Most parliamentary books allow debate to be closed with a two-thirds vote.
Encourage and equalize participation. Discussion at meetings is often monopolized by a single person, but several formal parliamentary rules are designed to prevent this. For example, no one should speak a second time while there are members who wish to speak a first time. Ask, “Is there anyone who wishes to speak for [or against] the motion who has not yet spoken?” If a member has not participated during a discussion, your presiding officer might even ask, “Mary, do you have any thoughts on this matter?” If you’re following formal procedure—such as during a particularly controversial issue—once a member has spoken twice to a motion, he or she is finished on that motion for the day.
Use proper procedures. Several states have adopted or considered legislation that mandates a parliamentary authority for board meetings. For instance, some school boards are required to follow the most recent edition of Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised. If your state has such language, you should obviously follow it. However, even in the absence of a statutory mandate, proper procedure can help turn long, confrontational meetings into short, relatively painless ones.
Use informal procedures when practical. Smaller boards can be less formal. In fact, formality can actually hinder business in a meeting of fewer than about a dozen. As a result, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly recommends that in smaller boards:
Some smaller boards don’t like this informality and stick to formal procedure at every meeting. Certainly, even informal boards should be more formal on matters of sufficient importance or controversy. That means observing limits on debate to keep the meeting on time and using formal votes to help avoid legal challenges.
Control interruptions and digressions. Digressions are matters off-point to the issue under discussion. A good presiding officer might acknowledge a tangential issue that has been raised, but note that it’s not relevant to the discussion and should be taken up later. (If you do make such a promise, remember to follow up on it.) Some boards and committees use a chalkboard or flip chart to “park” such digressions. Similarly, take care to deflate any windbags in attendance. If a member attempts to monopolize discussion, you may have to nicely state that because the member has already spoken, other opinions are needed.
Manage conflict. During meetings, members should never get into an argument—or even a direct discussion—with each other. If a confrontation begins between two members, your presiding officer should remind everyone to address all remarks to the chair.
End on a positive note. You cannot thank your volunteers too often—especially these days, when people can come up with many alternatives to serving on a school board. Thanking members for their time is not only gracious, but likely will result in greater enthusiasm for the board’s work. And that in turn can lead to even better meetings.
Jim Slaughter is an attorney, Certified Professional Parliamentarian, Professional Registered Parliamentarian, and past President of the American College of Parliamentary Lawyers. He is author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Parliamentary Procedure Fast-Track and lead author of Notes and Comments on Robert’s Rules, Fourth Edition.
Charts and articles are intended to provide general information on parliamentary procedure and are not legal advice or a legal opinion.