I Love Parking Lots!

After a recent professional meeting, I was walking to my car in the company of several others who had attended the same meeting that evening.  As often happens, as we walked out of the building we started talking about events of the meeting, and giving our opinions on the issues.  From a meeting of 25 or so people, there were perhaps 4 or 5 of us standing in the cool night air, brainstorming about how to handle a particularly sticky issue.  We came up with a few possibilities, and agreed to pass those ideas to the appropriate person.  Several of the ideas came from newer members of the group, who never would have spoken up in front of the entire committee, but were willing to do so in the less formal atmosphere of the parking lot. 

Often, the most interesting discussions of a meeting take place not during the formal meeting itself, but between smaller groups during breaks, or before and after the official meeting.  Sometimes this is because newer and perhaps shy people are intimidated, and don’t want to speak up in front of the larger group.  Unfortunately since they have a different perspective than those who have been around for a while, they may have just the fresh ideas that would be of value to the group.

Additionally, there are some people who need time to process information, mulling it over themselves before their ideas and opinions congeal into something that can be shared.  It may happen by the end of the meeting, or maybe not until several days later, when they are able to express their ideas in a coherent matter, or perhaps come up with a unique perspective on the issue.  For them too, an opportunity to share informally before the next meeting can be quite productive. 

There is another type of parking lot that can also be quite valuable in moving meetings along.  This is the bulletin board parking lot, or a place where an idea or issue that needs to be addressed can be tabled for the moment, but not forgotten.

Sometimes during a meeting, when a particularly difficult or divisive issue arises, that discussion threatens to derail the conversation on the main issue.  Especially when the controversial issue is peripheral, the facilitator may choose to put the issue in a “parking lot”, to be dealt with later.  Often this involves actually writing it down, and posting it on a bulletin board or blackboard where it remains visible to all participants. This allows the group to move on to the important business at hand, with the assurance that the other issue will be addressed eventually. Those vested in that topic know they will have their turn eventually, so can concentrate on the more urgent issue at hand.

In both cases, letting people have some time to think about an issue, taking the conversation to a different setting, and perhaps even closing off contentious arguments for a while can reset people’s thinking and spark new and better ideas. 

 This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

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