You rub your eyes, slowly lifting your head and scanning the room. As you assess the landscape of the meeting you’re attending, you see a hand go up.
“I second the motion,” a young man says.
The man at the front of the room poses the question: “All in favor?”
A unified but slow “aye” echoes throughout the room as more than half the attendees affirm the new motion.
You think, Okay, it hasn’t been tabled, now it’s on the floor for debate.
You don’t start with the floor (the ability to speak uninterrupted) as it’s not your motion.
You slowly become more alert, shaking yourself from the stupor induced by meeting tedium. The room, and more importantly, the new motion comes into focus. Here comes the debate, you muse, let’s see how they handle themselves.
The senior man to your right moves to amend the motion; a second is requested by the chair. The room is silent.
The officer to your right nudges you, and the eyes of the room fall on you like a spotlight. There you are, center stage, half asleep, and wondering why you received a passive-aggressive prompt.
“I second,” you blurt out before even realizing you missed your cue. In your sleepy haze, you watch the klieg light-eyes of each person converge on you, forming an imagined dunce cap atop your head.
“Way to make a great opening,” you mutter under your breath. Wallowing for a second, you think, This is what it feels like to be a cadet again, I guess. Head down, a second late, and totally green.
Your superior officer’s motion moves to the floor for debate. It is heated, but civil. Both sides are listening, but also preparing for their next move. It goes late into the night.
An older man on the opposing side of the verbose wrangling, asks to move the motion to the committee. It is seconded, and the vote starts. You are stuck looking at your notes, fumbling, pencil in hand, raised to object a moment too late. In your nervousness, you drop your pencil, clumsily reaching for the small wooden menace, you hear, “Aye” reverberate around the room. You lost because you were tired. The next motion to adjourn then also passes.
The night comes in slow motion as the clan house comes into view and men and women begin to leave this ceremonial room, moving out into the darkness of the village. Shadows interrupt the fire as the attendees shuffle back to their homes. Then the fire is once again uninterrupted, and you realize, you were alone.
Then, as if it were to come in threes, you finally figure it out. The other party was extending the debate in order to make you tired, going on and on in the passionate speech, delaying votes. They had tactics you did not see coming and you lost. Your motion will go on to die a slow death in committee as it’s amended into oblivion.
Your report might as well be one line: “I underestimated them.”
You think, How do they know all the rules already? You learned this at West Point and officer training school, so how do they know Roberts’ Rules of Order? These are Tlingit Indians in southeastern Alaska. How did they even get a copy of Roberts Rules of Order?
After all it’s the turn of the century, in Alaska; it is not called “The Last Frontier” for nothing, it really is far away and rather vast. Even in modern times, most Americans don’t realize how good Alaskans, specifically native Alaskans are, at Robert’s Rules of Order. Throughout the early 20th Century, as the American Government moved into Alaska, long gone were the days of making treaties only to break them and pull the “Manifest Destiny” card.
The skill with which Native Alaskans can run meetings will leave you in awe. To paint all Native Americans as the downtrodden, who got “tricked’ into signing treaties is demeaning, humiliating, and fails to address the many parliamentary victories Native Alaskans achieved in the 20th Century. In fact, in some towns in Alaska, receiving your Robert’s Rules of Order as a gift is akin to Catholic Confirmation or other rites of passage, inviting you into adulthood and full participation in the community.
“If we were as good at Robert’s Rules as the Native Alaskans, I expect we would complain about it much less,” one minister said about their congregation.
If you ever want to study a fun piece of history, look up the complaints from Presbyterian missionaries and Alaskan territorial officials regarding the Native Alaskan’s use of Robert’s Rules at that early stages of Alaskan history, and how they still use it to this day. Imagine growing up in a culture where running a meeting well is a central piece of your culture. For most people growing up in America, you are taught to sit in class and listen, not deliberate, share ideas, or follow parliamentary procedure to the letter. But, for Native Alaskans, this is a fundamental piece of their education.
Now let’s go back to the “Lower 48” to the state of Wisconsin and look at the federally recognized tribe of the Oneida Nation and the way they conduct meetings. In these meetings, the focus is on building consensus and ensuring everyone is working with the same information.
This process of consensus building differs from the conventional model of majority rule based on a simple voting routine. The “majority rule,” a special feature of the Western model of democracy, presupposes existence of public debate and formation of public opinion aided by mass communication. The voting process is only the means for bringing the process to its ultimate closure. But the cultures that are participative, interactive, and symbolically expressive are far more spontaneous. They go through a less rigid process involving both verbal and nonverbal modes of consensus building, referred to as “getting to be of the same mind,” before the community arrives at a collectively agreed-upon position. The open, patient, unstructured, and well-drawn-out discussions will continue until an acceptable and practical solution is reached.
— Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, A Platform for Designing Business Architecture.
The Oneida Nation, accourding to Gharajedaghi, breaks down meetings into four roles: Wolves, Turtles, Bears, and Fire Tenders. The Wolf is the pathfinder of the meeting; they set the direction, purpose, and agenda of the meeting. They also take notes and create the synthesis of various ideas and motivate all parties to find the best answer. The Fire Tender, birds, keep the “fire” under everyone’s feet and ensures the meeting keeps moving. The Turtles are a well of information; they provide time and space to ideas, provide the greater context, define the problems in-depth, and then formulate the mess into some form of cohesion. The Bears are your chief debaters; they deliberate and make recommendations based on the agenda set by the Wolf and the information provided the Turtles. The bears then design solutions. The meeting continues until everyone is of the “same mind.”
Now let’s combine these two meeting structures, while Robert’s Rules keeps order in a larger meeting, it has one unique quality for which it is known in movies, but it is often overlooked. Robert’s Rules allows one person to speak at a time and they must hold or cede the floor. Often in a modern business meeting, holding and keeping the floor can be a nonstop competition between alpha dogs. If you can use a “polite” version of Robert’s Rules to make sure each party is heard, as well as using the Oneida Nation model, you can create a unique blend of consensus.
If you interrupt someone, own it and apologize right away. If someone interrupts you and doesn’t apologize, be assertive and ask in a calm and kind tone if they’d permit you to finish. If someone is off topic, ask them to move that matter to the “parking lot” (holding it for discussion after the meeting after the whole agenda has been covered) or “table it” (asking for the topic to be discussed with its own meeting). Suddenly, you’ve got a group of people being assertive while listening to each other and still being focused on their role (wolf, turtle, bird or bear) rather than being right.
Give this method a try. Establish the basic roles of the meetings (wolf, turtle, bird, or bear) and lay the ground rules for “polite order.” This breakdown often happens naturally on my team, as the product manager, I often take on the role of the wolf and step back as I try to usher the group toward the best answer. I will play the devil’s advocate; I will play stupid in order to draw out other people’s thinking; and I will play the referee when needed.
The subject matter experts, or the more experienced engineers, will take the role of the turtle (though not a requirement), while the bears make up the rest of the meeting. For the fire tender (bird) pick someone who is assertive or who you want to train to be more assertive. If you are the wolf, take notes publicly at the front of the room, in your own short hand if you can, in every meeting. Set up the meeting with a clear agenda, and try to limit yourself to attempting to answer only one key question per meeting. If the meeting moves off topic, be the wolf and move the pack back onto the trail.
The final piece of our conglomerated meeting design is to be direct, and I mean “Dutch” Direct. For many Americans, this “directness” is difficult, as we’ve been indoctrinated with the principle, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” since we were children. For example, in the West Coast tech scene, you can have spinach in your teeth and no one will tell you as you wander around a cocktail party for an entire evening looking like a fool. No one told you because they were being “nice.” Well, they may call it “nice,” I think the passive route is quite rude. In the Netherlands, and especially Amsterdam, a Dutch person will walk right up to you and tell you to get the spinach out of your teeth and fix it. They are direct, this is especially useful in business meetings. They don’t see this as rude; they see this as being honest because they don’t want you to suffer the embarrassment of your poorly performed Popeye impersonation.
People visiting the Netherlands often do not understand the directness, but they are trying to help you. It’s just not in a way that is familiar to you. Maybe its time to get some tougher skin? After all, this is where the term “Dutch Uncle” comes from — “a person who criticizes or reproves with unsparing severity and frankness,” but most importantly they do it because they care about you.
In the long run, being a “Dutch Uncle” to everyone on your team and vice versa is like having a sideline full of business coaches who will help you make great plays if only you take the time to put aside your ego and listen. So if you want to speed up negotiations, and make great plays within your organization, be direct. Then encourage an environment where everyone is direct with each other.
Therein lies the formula: set simple rules about who can hold the floor, be polite, be assertive, ask each member of your team to choose their role, and then be direct with what you think. Do not be nice; be honest, patient, and fair. Learn to suppress your ego and go on the quest for knowledge as a team to find the best answer. If you can put aside yourself, set the fire, and keep it lit, you’ll build a lighthouse for the world, shining bright with innovation and knowledge.