Do You Have a Parking Lot?

Parking Lot Sign

One of the challenges of facilitating meetings – whether they be scoping meetings, requirements meetings, or any kind of meeting – is keeping the group focused and on track. If you don’t stay on topic, you could end up spending a lot of time but not actually accomplishing your goals. One technique you can use to help keep the discussion on topic is to utilize a Parking Lot.

Let me start off by saying that using a Parking Lot is most effective when you have clearly defined and communicated objectives for the meeting. So develop and publish an agenda or at least a list of goals to accomplish in the amount of time you have scheduled. Added bonus, this shows respect for everyone’s time – your attendees’ as well as your own – and that you planned in advance.

What is a Parking Lot?

A Parking Lot is most simply a place to “park” topics or ideas that you will follow up on at a later time. If I’m facilitating a large group, I especially like to use a large piece of paper on the wall – clearly labeled the “Parking Lot” – to make the note so everyone can see it. If you’re taking notes on your computer, have a separate document open and ready to capture this information. By actually writing it down where everyone can see it, there is no doubt that you heard/understood the issue and that action will be taken later.

How to Use the Parking Lot

I have a few tips and suggestions for how to effectively use the Parking Lot to your best advantage. The goal is to keep your meeting on track, not to make people feel like you are shutting down the conversation. With that said, here is how I use the Parking Lot:

  1. Explain the purpose of the Parking Lot at the beginning of your project and at the beginning of every meeting. This is a great item to cover in your Requirements Kick Off as you’re explaining what to expect. Let your attendees know that this is where you will capture any items that either cannot be resolved in the current meeting; or where the discussion is taking more than the allotted time and there are additional items to cover. (Thus, have an agenda so they know what you are trying to cover.) Don’t just spring the Parking Lot on them in the middle of the meeting when you need to use it. This tends to make it feel like you’re just trying to cut them off, which is not the point at all.
  2. Show the piece of paper (virtual or physical) where you will write down the parked items so everyone is comfortable with where these items will be captured. Don’t make your attendees guess if you’ve taken down the note or if something will be lost.
  3. Don’t be too quick to to park a discussion. Sometimes, your attendees just need to talk through something a little bit to give some context or background. Let the discussion go for a couple minutes. But as soon as it becomes apparent that the discussion is deviating from the agenda, find a good point to interject and offer to move this to the Parking Lot to keep the meeting moving forward.
  4. You don’t have to interrupt a conversation to move an item to the Parking Lot. If I’m having a hard time breaking into a conversation and don’t want to blatantly just start talking over someone else, I just walk over to the Parking Lot paper and start writing the topic and key concerns down….while they’re still talking. This visual cue let’s them know you’re trying to wrap up the current discussion so you can move back to your agenda.
  5. Make it a good thing to move a topic to the Parking Lot, not a punishment. Be careful how you choose your words when you’re wrapping up a conversation and moving it to the Parking Lot. “That’s not what we’re here to discuss.”  is less effective than “That’s a great point. How does that impact ABC (from the agenda)?” (After all, there may be something you’re not picking up on that is important, so don’t assume it’s not related.) If it doesn’t pertain to the current meeting, ask if it would be okay to move the topic to the Parking Lot so you can make sure to get through the meeting’s agenda items. If there is time at the end of the meeting you can re-visit it, and if not you’ll schedule a follow up meeting or discussion.
  6. Recap Parking Lot items at the end of the meeting. Identify if additional meetings are necessary or if these are side discussions that can be taken off-line. If follow up is required, identify who needs to be involved and assign action items.
  7. The most important thing to remember about Parking Lot items is to follow up on them. This tool is only effective if you take action and follow up on each and every one. Even if that means you add it to an action item backlog so it doesn’t get lost. But the moment you let one fall through the cracks, you will have a very difficult time using this technique in future meetings.

Have you used a Parking Lot before? Any other tips you can suggest for making this an effective facilitation technique? If you haven’t used a Parking Lot before, what other techniques have you used to keep everyone focused on the topic at hand?

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