The Parking Lot Method of Team Development

Suresh Marur

ex VP of Engineering at Smarsh Inc



I think some managers fall into this trap where they get stuck with a successful team. They have a particular vision for what the team should be, and, then, once they get to a steady state with the team, they get stuck to it. They get too used to that structure, and the downside is that both they and the team stagnate.

When you grow as a manager, your team grows, too. When your team is stuck, you’re stuck, too, and vice versa. You are codependent on one another in this way. It is a symbiotic relationship.

I strive to reinvent my teams constantly, both for myself and for them, as well. This is even more important during our current times, as our industry is constantly changing. Being open and aware of this challenge became a great opportunity to use my role as a manager to be a true leader for my people. How should I do it? How do I constantly reinvent my view of what my team should look like? How can I craft my team into something that not just survives but also thrives?

Actions taken

You need to have some method when working in this way. You must constantly refresh your view of what your team looks like and how it should look in the future, all without getting stuck along the way. I describe this as the parking lot technique: it’s a method to understand your team and to make them a living, dynamic organism.

The first step in the process is doing what you can to remove your biases. First, take everybody on your team and put them into a parking lot. Now, visualize what roles and responsibilities you will need in six months — how many of each type you will need and the levels of experience required to meet the demands of your business. Once you have this mapped out with no bias, you now need to fill these slots in from your parking lot. You can use a simple table (In, say, Excel.) or a mind map for all these positions in your team, whatever works for you.

Once you have this mind-map formulated, you can then take all of the people in your parking lot and begin placing them in these different roles. When you do that, consciously put people into a position where they have something to aspire to. It’s a good idea to put people in a place where they will need to stretch beyond their strengths in order to gain some sense of accomplishment. This creates a growth mindset within the team. It also creates the ability to extract the best out of people as you give them goals that make them feel useful.

I have found that this method challenges me to think much more deeply about my teams — what their strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations are for the future. It’s a framework where you need to constantly be changing the way that you perceive the members of your team. In order to be able to grow your people, you must first know where they excel and where they wish to go. Give them something to reach for.

Once you are able to do that, you are able to assess what needs remain to be filled. You should be doing this exercise on a periodic basis, ideally while doing your budget forecasting and planning. With this homework done, when you go to your leadership, you will have a very clear idea of what you still need and why you need it. Having this clarity is alo helpful when you have performance reviews or mentoring discussions with your team members directly.

If you lead multiple teams, I strongly encourage you to get the managers and leads of each of your teams to do this. It is a great way to start an open dialogue and give you insight on how your leaders think about their teams. It will foster a healthy discussion on how you can help them bring out the best in their people.

Lessons learned

  • Doing this frequently will bring clarity to the mind of the manager, both when managing downwards and managing upwards.
  • I encourage managers to do these things every time that they find themselves with attrition. When managers lose people, oftentimes they get very anxious and end up back-filling the position that just opened. However, by taking the time to analyze the team with these techniques, they can convert every instance of attrition into a moment of opportunity. They now have more space for the people still with the team to grow.
  • Use this model to work closely with your supervisor so that they are always aware of what strengths your team has to offer the company at any given time. This will also keep them abreast of any gaps on the team as well. They will help you make decisions that are free of bias. It becomes a very healthy, open discussion.

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Suresh Marur

ex VP of Engineering at Smarsh Inc

Engineering LeadershipLeadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership Training

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