Prof. Larry Susskind has been bringing the right people to the discussion table for 40 years. And, he’s made it a life mission to develop and teach a new way to run meetings that’s as different from Robert’s Rules of Order as democracy is from dictatorship.
“I understand why people are disgusted with the outcomes of meetings run by Robert’s Rules,” Susskind says. “Those meetings generate more conflict than necessary, and they leave important people out of the discussion. Plus, the arcane rituals of parliamentary procedure usually produce a victorious majority and a dissatisfied minority who presumably are supposed to quietly give up and go home. They rarely do.”
The alternative to Robert’s Rules is consensus building, and he spells it all out in his new book, Breaking Robert’s Rules (co-authored by Jeffrey Cruikshank and published by Oxford University Press). Under the consensus building approach (CBA), the goal is to seek unanimity, but settle for overwhelming agreement after concerted effort has been made to meet everyone’s interests. Also, at the end of each meeting, a document is produced that all stakeholders not only can live with, but are committed to implementing.
“That’s a huge improvement over Robert’s Rules,” Susskind says. “Robert only provides a road map for getting from one end of a meeting to the other. There’s no accountability whatsoever for what happens after everyone goes home.”
The Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, Susskind was one of the founders in 1982 of the inter-university Program on Negotiation based at Harvard Law School. He remains director of the Public Disputes Program there. In 1993, he established the Consensus Building Institute, a not-for-profit whose full-time staff of 15 professional mediators, mostly MIT graduates, are involved in dispute resolution all over the world.
Susskind insists that, even though MIT’s ability to handle problems in the world at large is legend, we can do even better through CBA. In New Orleans, for example: We need MIT engineers, architects, and planners to help the community redesign levees, bridges, and neighborhoods, but first, we need to bring the right people together and help them reach consensus on exactly what needs to be done. Somehow, a solution must be forged where there are no losers.
“It’s one thing to aspire to the greater good, and quite another to make it happen,” he says.
Robert’s Rules of Order were constructed in the 19th-century context of the Wild West, and not surprisingly focus on maintaining order during meetings. But these days, Susskind says, more meetings than not are held among communities of shared interest — such as members of a town committee or religious community, business work teams, or social groups — where there is already some common ground. Especially here, consensus building makes perfect sense.
The first step in Susskind’s collaborative approach to meetings involves talking privately to potential participants so they can have a hand in defining what will be talked about and who needs to be part of the discussion. A facilitator makes sure that every opinion is factored into the design of the meeting.
Another step allows brainstorming. Unlike Robert’s-run meetings, which slog through one motion at a time, CBA encourages participants to be creative in generating solutions that weren’t in anybody’s mind before the meeting began.
Susskind earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. at MIT, and has taught here for 35 years. After his 1960s efforts to give more people a voice in public meetings resulted in huge turnouts but no reasonable process for managing them once they were there, he immersed himself in the study of mediation and dispute resolution techniques.
The Consensus Building Handbook, which he co-authored, was the first and remains the most complete work aimed at codifying an alternative to Robert’s Rules for handling meetings. But at nearly 1,200 pages and $195 each, the handbook is hardly affordable for most people. And, it doesn’t fit in your pocket. Breaking Robert’s Rules was written to address that.
Of course, there are challenges to winning universal acceptance of the consensus building approach.
“First is the lack of understanding, or even awareness, about CBA as an alternative to Robert’s Rules,” Susskind explains. “And next is a lack of experience with it. Over time, we’ll accumulate stories that illustrate exactly how these methods have been successfully put to work.”
He knows it will happen. “Robert’s Rules just don’t feel right,” he says. “I want people to know that there is an alternative that does feel right. Besides, there is nothing to be lost by trying the consensus building approach. I hope people will feel liberated by knowing there’s a different way of working together that puts a premium on finding ingenious ways of meeting everyone’s interests.”