Business team discussing work; concept – parliamentary procedure application to small groups

Does Parliamentary Procedure Apply in Small Groups?

If you’re part of a small board or committee, you may find that parliamentary procedure just isn’t helpful. In your experience, decisions are made efficiently and fairly without it, and adding a layer of seemingly arbitrary rules seems more trouble than it’s worth. I get it, and I agree. The good thing is that the authors of Robert’s Rules agree, too.

Takeaway #1: Small boards and committees do not have to follow certain parliamentary procedure rules.

First, let’s make sure we are on the same page about the definition of small. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, small means no more than about 12. In my mind, that means that even a group of 15 can be small. But if your group has 20 members, that’s probably pushing it a bit.

Now, here are some of the key rules that small groups can set aside.


In small boards and committees, no seconds are needed before the group can discuss the motion.

Usually, motions need a second to confirm that more than one person wants to spend time on a specific topic. In small boards and committees, that’s less important, in part, because those groups often are already focused on certain topics (e.g., the Capital Campaign Committee).

Number of Times a Member Can Discuss a Motion

In small boards and committees, there is no limit on the number of times a member can discuss a motion or topic.

In large groups, each member can speak only twice on a motion, but in small boards and committees, hearing from everyone is actually feasible, and one of the purposes of a smaller group is to allow for a topic to be more thoroughly hashed through. These factors make speaking limits less of a priority.

Importantly, though, members of a small board or committee can still move to limit debate or close debate if colleagues are getting long-winded.

Making Motions

In small boards and committees, the group can discuss an idea or topic before making a motion.

Clarity and efficiency are two of the primary reasons that main motions exist. Generally, requiring an idea to be spelled out in a sentence before it is discussed by a group helps to ensure that the proposer of an idea has actually thought it through at some level, and that the group is on the same page about the idea it is considering. But in a small board or committee, the group may benefit from discussing an idea generally or brainstorming on a topic before attempting to spell it out precisely.

Takeaway 2: Culture is a deciding factor in small board and committee rule flexibility.

Earlier I defined the term small because it is technically the way to decide whether your board or committee can set aside certain rules. But “technically correct” doesn’t always mean “practically wise.”

If you’re thinking about lifting some of these requirements the next time your board or committee meets, I’d encourage you to focus first on the culture of your group rather than the number of members.

Weigh the group’s level of collegiality, proficiency in listening before responding, and ability to disagree agreeably. Ask whether lifting certain rules would actually aid efficiency or slow the group down. There are groups that definitely meet the technical definition of small but still need to make sure they follow all the rules because they can’t get anything done otherwise. Sometimes this happens when just one or a few members are especially hard to work with. Other groups decidedly do not meet the definition of small and yet are great candidates for lifting some of the rules because for them less structure means better, more efficient decision-making.

The point here is that one size does not fit all. First, ask yourself honest questions about the culture of your group. Once you’re clear on that piece, then ask what rules you might flex a bit to enhance the efficiency and quality of the decision-making process.

Where to Learn More