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Is Your Meeting Off-Track? Try the Backburner (or Parking Lot)

Imagine this: Your team is gathered for the weekly meeting and the objective is alignment on the new sales direction. The agenda is set, the technology is working, and all team members have shown up on time. You’re ready to lead a productive meeting. And yet, ten minutes in, there are a few different conversations happening at once. What happened?

Coming into a meeting, participants likely have unrelated topics on their mind; at the same time they are processing the new information in the meeting which is leading to new thoughts. It’s natural for them to raise concerns, questions and ideas that, while important, are not in direct alignment with the objective you have set. An accounting team member wants to discuss how this new sales strategy will affect the move to a new budgeting software. The product team is excited to start brainstorming new value delivery and feature requirements.

As a good meeting facilitator, you want your team to feel heard and you want to achieve meeting results. You could improvise and allow these other discussions to take priority, but you know that the new sales direction alignment is most important today. So, what do you do?

Introducing the Backburner (or Parking Lot) to Keep Your Meeting Focused

An underused but effective facilitation tool is the backburner (also known as the parking lot or issue bin). Whatever you decide to call this tool, the backburner requires a physical or virtual storage space such as a whiteboard, post-it notes, or shared screen to capture emerging topics to return to in the future. When an off-topic idea comes up in a meeting, acknowledge that it is important but not urgent, and make a record of it in the storage space.

Backburner items get less immediate attention than more pressing concerns (just like food on the back of a stove might get less attention than food in the front). The value of the backburner is that it acknowledges people’s ideas so they don’t feel ignored or disrespected while still prioritizing the original meeting objective.

How to Use the Backburner Effectively

The backburner is a tool to help your team stay focused in meetings. How do you use it effectively? Try these five tips:

1. Intentionally introduce the backburner concept to the team.

Explain the function of the backburner to your team and incorporate it into your meeting norms. Share your plan for recording and following up on backburner items. Address your team’s questions and get their buy-in before you begin using the approach.

2. Empower everyone to use the backburner.

Impress upon the team that it’s not just the facilitator’s responsibility to call out if the discussion has veered off-topic. At any time, anyone on the team can say, “I’ve noticed we’ve gone on a tangent. Do we want to move this topic to the backburner or should we reframe the meeting focus and spend more time on it now?” It’s up to everyone to help keep a meeting on track.

3. Revisit the backburner items at the end of a meeting.

At the end of a meeting, review the backburner items with your team and decide as a group how to follow up on each item.

  • Decide which items should be included on the agenda of an upcoming meeting and who will be accountable for making sure they do.

  • If the item only involves a few members of the team, assign it to the appropriate person who will be responsible for taking the item to the next step.

  • Recognize that some items might no longer be applicable and require no further action.

4. Include backburner items in the meeting notes.

Once you capture backburner items, don’t forget about them! Ask the notetaker to include backburner items as part of the meeting notes so the information is not lost.

5. Take responsibility for your backburner items.

If no one follow-ups on these ideas, the backburner approach may lose credibility and people will be less willing to let their ideas sit in the backburner in future meetings. If you are an owner of a backburner item, add it to your task list so that it doesn’t fall through the cracks. In the Meeteor software, the backburner items from meeting notes show up directly in your team’s and their owner’s task list, meaning you don’t have to copy and paste.

Prioritize Backburner Items in Context

Backburner items are not necessarily next steps, nor are they necessarily important or urgent. They may just be interesting ideas you don’t want to forget. If they do lead to next steps, consider them in the context of your individual and team’s workloads and priorities. You don’t want a backburner item to deter you from more important work. The greatest gift of the backburner tool is that it acknowledges and records the concerns of meeting participants that are not directly related to that meeting’s objective. It’s up to you to decide next steps.

Now You

Has your team used the backburner or parking lot during meetings? How have you used them? Which term do you prefer?


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