Most of you have heard of Robert’s Rules of Order, the universally accepted guidelines of parliamentary procedure for conducting meetings.
Today I offer Gary’s Rules of Order, which consist of one rule – every good, efficient and productive meeting should never last more than one hour.
This goes for meetings of city or village councils, county commissions, school boards, or any other governmental agency, as well all business and non-profit boards and associations.
Earlier this year, I was reelected for another term as president of the Highland County Senior Citizens Board. Trust me, this wasn’t because of any particular talent or skill in regard to issues involving senior citizens or the senior center in general.
No, this happened because I conduct fast meetings. My fellow board members, who are all busy people, appreciate it. I should add that one big reason I am able to conduct fast meetings is because of advance preparation by executive director Mechell Frost, secretary Lynn Neal, finance chair Deb Jones and others. But if I’m chairing a meeting, any meeting, from start to finish I promise it will take less than an hour, or I have failed miserably.
Human beings have the ability to sit still and participate, mentally and physically, in any given event for about an hour before the mind wanders aimlessly and irretrievably into lands filled with other adventures. Science shows that after an hour, without a break, the brain switches into another mode, something very close to the “off” position.
Well, I really don’t have any scientific data to back that up, but take my word for it.
After an hour, we cognitively know that someone is continuing to talk, perhaps slides or graphs are being flashed before our eyes, and maybe even a whole new subject is being broached. But we have a patience expiration limit of about one hour, and after that only a fraction of what is being said or demonstrated is making its way through the mental muck.
Decisions made within an hour of the beginning of a meeting are usually sharp and well-reasoned. Judgments made after an hour are likely reached out of exhaustion, frustration or fatigue, i.e., let’s just settle this and go home.
Unfortunately, most government entities backload their agendas to include the most important items at the end, such as readings and/or passages of ordinances and resolutions. If a meeting has dragged on interminably, the end of a meeting is no time to be asking folks to make important decisions. It’s better that the most important items be first on the agenda.
Sometimes meetings stretch more than an hour because of unplanned events, such as hijackings — in particular meetings that are hijacked because time limits on public comments are not enforced.
I’ve said it before, but kudos again to the Hillsboro City Schools Board of Education for its excellent enforcement of time limits on public comments, as well as its policy of answering comments only through follow-up communications rather than getting into debates during the meeting itself.
All meeting places should be equipped with timers connected to an alarm system, and after an hour lights should flash and bells and sirens should go off.
Then, a robotic voice should intone, “WARNING! THIS MEETING HAS NOW EXCEEDED ONE HOUR! ANY DECISIONS MADE FROM THIS POINT ON ARE USELESS! WARNING! WARNING! THIS MEETING SHOULD TERMINATE IMMEDIATELY! PLEASE LOCATE THE NEAREST EXIT AND FILE OUT IN ORDERLY FASHION!”
Similarly, attendees of religious services, no matter how devout, are also still human beings, subject to all mortal limitations of attention, patience and focus, and the one-hour rule should apply there, too.
But what about sporting events, Gary? You complain about meetings or church services lasting too long, but you’ll sit through a three-hour baseball game without complaint, you hypocrite.
Let us first agree that attending baseball, football, basketball games, etc., often involves switching the brain to the “off” position from the first pitch, tip-off or kick-off, judging by the behavior of many fans. As anyone who has attended such games is well aware, you barely have to pay attention at all when you go to a ballgame.
You can spend the whole game chatting away with your family or friends, talking on your cell phone, getting up and down a hundred times for food and beverage, and then leave the game any time you want, whether it’s over or not. You do not have to focus for long stretches of time, and you certainly don’t have to take anything seriously or reverentially.
If anyone would like any tips on how to run an expedient meeting, just give me a call. We can talk on the phone or meet in person, but either way I promise it will take less than an hour.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.