Just over a decade ago, I came across a book called The Knowing-Doing Gap, by Stanford Business School professors Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. Pfeffer and Sutton talk about how companies expend great resources acquiring knowledge of what they should be doing—but, in many cases, they don’t get around to the actual “doing” of it, and thus, there is a gap. The authors talk about how consultants, presentations, planning sessions, meetings and more meetings can get in the way of the action that is necessary to accomplish real results. By way of illustration, one chapter is aptly titled “When Talk Substitutes for Action.”
At TCG’s June 6–8 National Conference in Dallas, titled “Learn. Do. Teach.”, we helped attendees from across the nation to move toward generating more action in their work by learning how to do something new, perfecting that thing by doing it, and then teaching it to someone else. (More on the conference can be found in Diep Tran’s article “School Days, School Days.”) In keeping with the academic theme, we encouraged attendees to “major” in one of four programmatic arcs. My major was diversity and inclusion, and I learned a lot. I will do things as a result of what I learned. I will also have the chance, I expect, to teach others about my successes and my self-searching epiphanies.
I also became aware during the course of the conference of some of the “substitutes for action” that can keep individuals, organizations and the theatre field overall from moving forward on key issues affecting our shared ecology. Because these items can also be normal, useful practices, part of business as usual, the trick is to understand whether they are “standing in” for action or actually helping to bring about meaningful change. I found myself discussing with colleagues things we need to do before we can accomplish our diversity/inclusion goals—and as the conference proceeded, these things were revealed to be part of a widely shared vocabulary that, at least in small ways, is “standing in” for action. Here are three examples:
Substitute for action #1: Looking for funding. As I talked about TCG’s ambitious six-part diversity initiative and our hopes to get it funded, a hand shot up in the room with an apt—and genuinely activist—response: Trina Jackson from Boston’s Theatre Offensive said: “In grassroots organizing circles, I’ve learned something important: The revolution will not be funded!” Yes, funding is important, but there’s also a lot we can do without waiting for that knight-in-shining-armor-designated funding source. An organization’s ongoing operating budget, to a large extent, reflects organizational priorities, whether intentionally developed or unintentionally evolved. The things that can only be done if there is special funding…may never get done. We need to stop using the pursuit of funding as an excuse for why we can’t move forward—even if we need to get creative and take revolutionary baby steps.
Substitute for action #2: Focus on building a talent pipeline. Effective training and development are important for all future leaders in the theatre field—TCG has its own program to bolster the careers of Young Leaders of Color, for example. However, prioritizing the idea that we must develop a pool of future leaders can also relieve pressure for recruiting more leaders of color in top positions at major institutions today. There are currently women and candidates of color, both in and out of the theatre community, who could be brought to positions of leadership. We need to change the recruitment process, cast a wider net, rethink the composition and functioning of search committees, and help cultivate and diversify the networks that help propel people into leadership positions. We need to do this together, and do it now.
Substitute for action #3: Planning. The presence of a well-developed plan can help a team take bold steps forward, and can also paint a compelling picture for potential funders, while giving new initiatives a place in the budget process. But the mantra “first we need a plan” can sometimes delay action, or make it seem as if something is being done, when it’s really just being talked about. If diversity is one of your core values, then day-to-day decisions can be made to support that value—even as a bigger plan is being developed. This idea applies, in fact, across all of the thematic arcs of our conference, from artistic innovation to financial adaptation.
One way that TCG will help close the “knowing-doing gap” with respect to diversity and inclusion is through our Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Some 20 member theatres took part in a pre-conference meeting on June 5 in Fort Worth, exploring personal biases, investigating organizational strengths and weaknesses, and developing action plans for diversity and inclusion. The group will serve as a national cohort, holding each other accountable year-round for taking real action toward meaningful change, and maintaining an active presence on the TCG Circle and Conference 2.0 in order to share best practices with the broader field.
In the theatre, we pride ourselves on the act(ion) of creating art. We practice at a high level of on-time delivery, year in and year out. With a new theatre season upon us, hundreds of shows—having started simply as titles on a brochure, or ideas on a notepad—will come to fruition on opening day designed, built, rehearsed and ready for an audience. But while we’re accomplishing these things that we’re already good at, can we cast a critical eye on the activities we engage in that give the impression of forward motion, but are actually masking a degree of stasis? In the process, we might just make our personal lives more rewarding, our organizations healthier, and our theatre ecology more robust and ready, for the now and for the future.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!