Parliamentary procedure, based on Robert’s Rules of Order, can help to improve your organisation’s meetings, explain Elizabeth Jordan and Larry Lyons

How many times have you attended a meeting that did NOT have a clear sense of purpose, did NOT keep to time and where the chair did NOT maintain proper control? Or perhaps you have heard your executives complaining when they return from an unproductive meeting. Many of us can identify with the issues that arise when meetings are not managed well, and which are a curse to executive support professionals.

The widespread problems with meetings were encapsulated in a Harvard Business Review article in 2017 entitled ‘Stop the Madness’.[i] In this article, the authors reported survey results that support the deep dissatisfaction with meetings. Of 182 senior managers who were surveyed across a range of different industries, 65% said meetings kept them from completing their work, 71% said meetings were unproductive and inefficient, 64% said meetings came at the expense of deep thinking, and 62% said meetings missed opportunities to bring the team closer together.

This is particularly concerning since meetings are the mechanism through which many important decisions are made and through which vital information is shared by millions of people daily, both in business and other organisations. Given this, the people who attend the meeting must consider ways to make them more productive and value-adding.

Henry Martyn Robert

Way back in 1863 someone decided he had had enough of poorly run meetings. Henry Martyn Robert was a young army lieutenant and engineer. He was asked to moderate a meeting at the First Baptist Church in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He accepted the challenge but found that, despite a great deal of effort on his part, the event became a shouting match that lasted for almost 24 hours. Robert was deeply frustrated by what he saw as his own poor performance in chairing the meeting. He recognised that his inability to control proceedings had contributed to what had unfolded, and he decided to take steps to improve how he handled meetings in the future. Unfortunately, too many people in organisations fail to do the same.

As a result of his somewhat embarrassing experience, and his continued participation in meetings, Robert gradually developed an approach to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of everyday meetings and to boost attendee satisfaction. The result was a way to apply parliamentary procedure, in what became known as Robert’s Rules of Order.[ii]

This handy pocket-sized book addresses the chaos he observed at many of the meetings he attended. The most widely used version of his book today is Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, which has been updated multiple times since its original publication. So, it has a proud history of helping people to manage meetings and is something that we can learn from today.

What Are Robert’s Rules of Order?

Robert’s Rules of Order describes the set of rules and codes that provide a structured framework for managing discussions, making decisions, and ensuring orderly conduct during meetings. With this systematic approach to conducting meetings, decisions are reached democratically and desired objectives are achieved.

Let us share four tips on how the application of parliamentary procedure, based on Robert’s Rules of Order, can help to improve everyday meetings in your organisation.

1. Choose Your Chair Wisely

In parliamentary procedure, the role of the chair or facilitator is pivotal to the success of the meeting. The chair must command the respect of the meeting and be seen to be fair to all – for example, calling people wishing to speak by their name, allowing each person the same length of time to speak, making sure the discussion is relevant to the topic in question, and ensuring the meeting stays on track. Another important role of the chair is in summarising what has been discussed at the end of each specific topic to ensure that everyone is given the same information regarding any decision that has been taken and the next steps to follow. This avoids the well-known problem of people leaving the meeting unsure of its purpose and what is required of them.

2. An Agenda Is Essential

Under Robert’s Rules of Order, an agenda is considered essential to provide a clear structure for conducting meetings. A draft agenda should be circulated in advance of every meeting and adopted at the start of the meeting. ‘Adopting the agenda’ sends a strong signal that attendees buy into the meeting and are ready to participate. The items on the agenda are then followed in a systematic manner, with each item addressed and discussed before moving on to the next one. This prevents the discussion from becoming derailed and promotes a focused approach to the meeting. This, in turn, decreases the likelihood of important matters being overlooked. In fact, there are some people who feel strongly that without an agenda, there is no point attending a meeting, often summarised as: ‘No agenda, no attenda’.[iii]

3. Lead an Orderly Discussion

There are times during meetings when the loud, extroverted voices may dominate the discussion and exclude quieter, more introverted members. Parliamentary procedure offers a solution to this common problem. It provides a process by which the discussion takes place in an orderly manner. A person wishing to speak has to first address the chair, and the chair then has to call the person by name and invite them to speak. This respectful interchange helps to set the tone for an orderly discussion. In this way, members, one after another, have a chance to express their opinions without interruption, leading to a more positive and productive discussion and decision-making. Robert’s Rules of Order also allow for people to challenge the chair (politely) if it is felt that the correct procedures are not being followed. It also allows for people to request work to be sent to a committee, adjourn the meeting, and much more. This makes for an orderly and productive meeting using an established framework.

4. Make Efficient Use of Time

One of the major complaints about meetings is that most run over the allotted time. Robert’s Rules of Order offers opportunities to overcome this problem in many ways. The use of a process known as ‘unanimous consent’ to expedite non-controversial matters being addressed is a tool that could be used in everyday meetings. For example, the adoption of the agenda, the approval of the meeting minutes, and moving a meeting to a new date and time could be dealt with in this manner. Having the agenda and related documents circulated in advance of the meeting increases the chance that people will arrive prepared and ready to participate, ensuring that time is used efficiently. Enforcing time limits on discussions encourages people to be clear and concise in their presentations. The effect of adhering to these rules is an efficient use of time and more productive meetings.


Parliamentary procedures, outlined in Robert’s Rules of Order, have offered a time-tested framework for effective and efficient meetings for nearly 150 years. In the 21st century, where meetings are global, diverse, and complex, the framework of Robert’s Rules of Order is needed more than ever. In short, it offers an opportunity for fair, focused, and productive meetings in every type of organisation, whether in business, the voluntary sector, or elsewhere. It supports a scenario where diverse voices and views can be heard, decisions can be made in a democratic and timely manner, and high levels of satisfaction from meeting participants will be achieved.


[i] Perlow, Leslie A., Hadley, Constance Noonan, & Eun, Eunice. Harvard Business Review, July-August 2017, pp. 62-69.

[ii] Robert, Henry M., Seabold, Daniel, Honemann, Daniel, Gerber, Shmuel, & Balch, Thomas. Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition. Paperback, Hachette Book Group.

[iii] Ross, Hannah (2022). No Agenda, No Meeting: How to create meaningful meetings. Available at: (accessed 12 April 2024).

Elizabeth Jordan and Larry Lyons are members of Toastmasters International, a not-for-profit organisation that has provided communication and leadership skills since 1924 through a worldwide network of clubs. Elizabeth is Director D71, and Larry Lyons is ... (Read More)

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