The pitfalls of buy-in and action planning

Quite often in meetings there´s a big assumption that we must end with action planning without which the event will be deemed unproductive.

Action planning has its place and Chris Corrigan has a good post looking at some choices in the context of open space meetings.

But I think the demand for action planning can often be a tremendous if unintended red herring.

For example, I often host meetings where a very diverse group of people gather from many different backgrounds. These people will never meet again as this group and while they share some common interests, it would be quite wrong to treat them as a single entity whose purpose is to agree on some common plan. Trying to get them to agree a list of joint actions feels like an avoidance of a more interesting truth: the actions that will emerge from such a group will almost certainly NOT be agreeable, acceptable or even remotely interesting to all. Let´s not force people to sit through a pantomine at the end of an otherwise engaging meeting so that some can maintain an illusion that this diverse group can be ordered and controlled.

I´ll go further and say that action planning can be pretty toxic even where the people in the room are from the same movement or organisation and are supposed to working together going into the future. Sure, sometimes it´s important to co-ordinate, but the reality in most groups is that there is never a real consensus about anything really energising, and the actions that actually do result are not the product of some tidy consensus, but the result of a mess of politics, differing personal motivations and – crucially – the driving and sometimes unreasonable passion of a smaller number of agitators.

So when people start talking about the need for everyone singing from the same songsheet, or arguing vehemently that everyone must “buy in”, I try to maintain a sanguine dispostion. It seems to me such vehemence could go different ways: it can slide into inadvertent control-freakery and lead us to a heavy handed group process… or it can be shifted with a good question towards something (IMHO) much more useful: for example, what it is YOU want to do and do you want to find the people who also want to do it, and deal in some way or other with the resistance that almost any really exciting idea must generate?

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