Action theatre

You may have come across the term security theatre, to describe, as Bruce Schneier puts it, “countermeasures that provide the feeling of security while doing little or nothing actually to improve security.”

In similar vein, at meetings, could we draw a distinction betwen action theatre and action?

I’m very familiar with participants expressing concern that there are actions, with several (but not all) heads nodding. There are rounds of calls for everyone to agree action points. And facilitators often end up standing by a flip chart scribbling them up and allocating them to participants. There’s no hard and fast rule, but all this often feels like action theatre to me. It gives an impression that lots of action is happening… but it turns out that a lot of the plans don’t seem to get beyond ideas on a flipchart.

(There’s also “priority theatre”, the variation around the theme of “we need to set some priorities here”)

I’m more excited when people talk about stuff that they want to do and offer to get started, without any prompting by the chairman/facilitator. In Open Space, you’ll often see ginger groups forming that start projects in the meeting itself and seem much more likely to continue outside. So when people call for “action” in the abstract, or for a process to make actions happen, I tend to ask them: what action do you personally want to see happen? Is there something you need to do yourself to make it happen?

I’m also quite content for meetings to engage in fierce arguments about what to do, and for those arguments to continue long enough for some new insights to emerge for participants – insights that might provide the ground for some wiser action in future. I’d also rather those arguments go unresolved than see foks grudgingly agreeing to “action points” where their agreement only really means, “I’m tired and I want to go home now” and not “Yes, that’s something I want to make happen”.

Afterthought. The term action theatre means something quite different in other contexts, such as these guys who would have a lot to share about what it is to embody action.

2 thoughts on “Action theatre

  1. Graham Hill


    At the risk of preaching to the converted, take a look at Stuart Kauffman’s work on self-organisation and emergence.

    Creating an environment where people are sufficiently motivated to self-organise around solving a problem (or taking advantage of an opportunity) is a great way to go beyond action theatre to real action.

    Self-organisation has, of course, been around in biological systems for many millions of years.

    Graham Hill

    Independent CRM Consultant

    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Yes, emergence is what I prefer and it’s often blocked by too much effort to “make stuff happen”. My aim to support a space where people are motivated to take initiatives rather than engage in “action theatre”.


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