Tom Arthur: Avoid the parking lot meeting

Use a “check-out” to prevent the post-meeting gossip.

You know about the parking lot meeting, right? The one that takes place in the parking lot after every meeting you’ve ever attended. The agenda of the parking lot meeting is to critique the actual meeting. “Betty always says that at every meeting. I’m sick of hearing her soap box.” “Fred just can’t keep this committee on task. We’re always getting off the agenda following red herrings.” “Mary cut me off one too many times tonight. I’m done with it.”

I’d like to suggest a fairly simple practice to dramatically improve your meetings. I’ve been leading on average at least a meeting a day for over ten years, and I use this practice at the end of every meeting. I call it “Check-out.” No, it’s not an invitation to mentally check-out and start thinking about the gallon of milk you have to pick up on the way home. It’s an invitation to critique the process of the meeting.

Here’s how it works.

I provide a printed agenda for every meeting; the last item of business (beside perhaps prayer) on it is the check-out. I usually give about five minutes for the practice. When I introduce it to a new team, I tell them we’re going to critique the process of our team, not the decisions we made. That’s what the rest of the meeting was for. It’s not an opportunity to critique my leadership (although those critiques are welcomed). We’re here to critique they way our team works together. I want to bring the parking-lot meeting into the actual meeting.

I have teams do this by answering two simple questions: What went well in this meeting? Where was there room for improvement? I usually take a couple of minutes to deal with the first question alone, and then a couple more minutes to answer with the second.

Depending on the culture of the team or committee you may get more or less honesty from this discussion. But to build honesty moving forward it’s important to act on the points brought up in the way that you lead the next meeting.

If a common critique is that the team gets off on too many tangents, then you’re being given permission at the next meeting to be more directive with the group. If a common critique is that the team is too task-oriented (is that ever a problem?), then you’re given permission to allow the team to follow some tangents, and maybe even encouraged to lead the team down some rabbit trails yourself.

When people start to notice that you lead the next meeting differently based on the check-out of the last meeting, you’ll gain trust and you’ll begin to get better, more honest feedback during check-out.

I’ve found over time that there are several predictable results when I first introduce this practice to a team:

1) Skepticism. The team thinks it’s a little hokey.

2) Only positive feedback is offered. This isn’t all bad. It encourages you as a leader to keep leading the team to do what you now know everyone thinks is going well.

3) Someone needs to break the ice. You may even be the one to offer that first bit of critical feedback in order to get the ball rolling.

4) The whole team begins to build trust. Genuine and honest feedback occurs and as a result, the morale of the team rises significantly because they feel that they have some power in shaping how meetings work.

5) Your leadership gains more focus, direction and confidence. You begin to know your team better, and you stop having to wonder what people are saying in the parking lot.

Try a check-out at your next meeting. Then come back here and leave two comments: What went well about the practice, and where was there room for improvement?

Tom Arthur is pastor of Sycamore Creek United Methodist Church in Lansing, Michigan.