The use -- and abuse -- of parking lots


A reader writes in:

I've been in organizations that use parking lots in their meetings. But too often, those ideas never go anywhere - the company just ends up with a bunch of flip chart sheets that contain good ideas that never get fleshed out in subsequent meetings, because they're just not "big enough to hold a meeting on" or because "we don't have enough time/resources to investigate this right now" so they're constantly de-prioritized or put on a back burner.

It's a good question. Lord knows you've probably seen more than your fair share of those flip chart sheets rolled up and lying in an unused closet like Dead Sea Scrolls. So what to do?

Given my (ahem) rather strong opinions on the need to live in your calendar (or to set up a personal kanban), it's not surprising that I advocate carving out a specific time to revisit the ideas that have been relegated to the parking lot. You can choose the first or last 10 minutes of the next meeting, or you can schedule a new meeting specifically to clear out the parking lot. It doesn't matter.

Specificity is the key to making this work. You won't just "get around" to talking about those ideas any more than you just "get around" to tackling tasks that aren't on your calendar or your task list. This doesn't mean you have to do it every week: there's nothing wrong with deciding only to review the list monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually. Just be sure to block out sufficient time for the review on your team's calendar.

It's important to bring evaluation criteria to the parking lot review. You'll undoubtedly have way too many potential projects to take them all on, so you'll need some way of selecting the winners from the losers. Some possible criteria are:

  • Ease, benefit, and urgency
  • Revenue vs. risk
  • Alignment with organizational goals vs. departmental goals

It doesn't really matter what criteria you use, just that you have some consistent way of determining whether or not the item is worthy of your organizational time and attention.

Now, the hardest part: throw out the losers. Get rid of the flip chart sheets and move on.

The parking lot is exactly like your personal to-do list: there's an infinite amount of stuff clambering for your attention, but only a finite amount of stuff that you can actually do. With an organization, there's an infinite number of potential projects, but a finite amount of people and money to take on those projects. So you have to cull the list. You have to divest yourself of the fantasy that you might actually take advantage of the opportunities that have been previously languishing in the parking lot. After all, the company has survived this long without implementing these ideas, so clearly they aren't all that vital to its success.

If you don't cull the list, you're sowing the seeds of the parking lot's demise. The list will be 83 items long, and no one wants to attend a meeting with 83 items on the agenda. Eventually, your colleagues will all find themselves too busy visiting their customers or washing their hair, and you won't have any more parking lot reviews.

But at least you'll have a nice collection of Dead Sea Scrolls in the closet.

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