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September 12, 2007 Volume 7, Issue 37
 
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Using the Parking Lot

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In meetings, keeping a list we call the "parking lot" is a fairly standard practice. As the discussion unfolds, we "park" there any items that arise that aren't on the agenda, but which we believe could be important someday soon. Here are some tips for making your parking lot process more effective.

Whether you call it the parking lot, the issues bin, or the issues list, accumulating contributed items that aren't quite on topic during a given meeting can help keep the meeting focused and moving forward. Here are some tips to help you get more from the practice, or to motivate you to start.

Make it visible
The piping plover, a threatened species of shore bird

The piping plover, a threatened species of shore bird. One conjecture about the incidence of parking lot items is that we tend to generate them when our creativity combines with innovative projects in settings that lack sufficient resources, or sufficient stability, to support fuller exploration of the many opportunities we uncover. A similar phenomenon might be occurring in nature. Observations indicate the existence of a species gradient from the Earth's equator down to the poles. If we consider extinction as analogous to the evolutionary "parking lot," it's possible that more species are being "parked" at high latitudes due to perturbations in high-latitude environments, such as the blooming of the human species (in the case of the plover), or perhaps repeated glaciations. Whether the environment is responsible, or whether differences in speciation and extinction rates are responsible, is an open question. See a recent letter to Science by Charles R. Marshall, and a responding letter from Dolph Schluter and Jason Weir, in Science, 27 August 2007, p. 451. Their original article, "The latitudinal gradient in recent speciation and extinction rates of birds and mammals," appeared in Science, 16 March 2007, p. 1574. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Enter the items on a flip chart or other medium that's visible to all. Visibility helps deter duplication, and it might spur additional creativity.
Enlist a valet
A meeting of more than about seven people needs a parking lot valet — someone to record the items, and to verify that the contributors agree with the wording. For smaller meetings, the scribe or recorder can play the valet role.
Encourage self-parking
Encourage meeting attendees to self-park. That is, if a contributor knows in advance that a contribution will be parked, why not add it to the parking lot after the meeting? Although there is some value in announcing the contribution during the meeting, the time lost doing so is also valuable.
Review at meeting's end
A very brief end-of-meeting review of the parking lot should assign to each item someone from leadership to "own" it and follow it to resolution.
Follow up
Every item from the parking lot should make a later appearance as a part of a future agenda item, or on the next edition of the parking lot resolution list, or on the cumulative parking-lot-awaiting-resolution list. Nothing should disappear into the void. Each item's owner is responsible for tracking it.
Track the contributors
Track the contributors of parked items. Investigate why some people repeatedly offer items that end in the parking lot. Do they not understand the agenda? Are they uniquely brilliant? Are their concerns being ignored? Why are they not self-parking?
Maintain a parking lot history
Every item from the parking lot
should make a later appearance
as a part of a future agenda item
or a parking lot resolution list
Compile all parking lots, and examine them for patterns. Are some kinds of items repeatedly parked? If so, perhaps these are issues that need attention, or perhaps some people are preventing them from getting attention.
Track the context
Track the contexts in which parking lot items appear. A high incidence of parked items might indicate that the group hasn't been proactive in that topic area — the issues involved are "running ahead" of the group.

Any tool can be abused, including the parking lot. The Chair, for instance, can use it to stifle discussion of any topic not explicitly on the agenda. Tracking parked items can limit this risk, but you might have to deal with parking lot abuse as a performance issue. Since that can be a complex question, and it isn't on today's agenda, I've added it to the parking lot. Go to top Top  Next issue: How to Procrastinate  Next Issue
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The term parking lot is an Americanism. Even though the British call them car parks, my colleague Graham Oakes reports that the term "parking lot" works in the context of meetings in the United Kingdom. My colleague Nynke Fokma reports from other European languages: Bent (Danish) says, "Boette" (Marmalade jar); Emmanuel (French) says, "Parking"; Nynke (Dutch) says, "Even opzij?" (Aside for now?); and Marco (Italian) says, "Possiamo parlarne dopo?" (Can we talk about this later?).

More reports: Mary Ann (Tagalog (Phillipines)) says, "Tsaká na" (Later). Christine (Sydney, Australia, where she works with environmental organizations) says, "Let's park that in the bike rack for later."

If you send me your term from your own language, I'll post it.

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

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When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no trap. Available here and by RSS on September 2.
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