David Caulfield

Learning and Development Theatre

What is L&D Theatre?

I'm approaching 1 year as an L&D manager. Mentorship and community are an important part of learning any new role, so 12 months ago I joined a virtual L&D community. I attended some meetups but didn't enjoy them. I couldn't take the community seriously. Everyone had the voice of a teacher talking to a young child. That condescending tone that high-fives everyone and says "that's so awesome" a little too much. Coming from a software development background, this was grating. Give me a problem and let's get some ideas on paper!

Not only were we avoiding real-life problems - everyone was making up problems that didn't exist! It dawned on me that the community didn't understand what true problem-solving looked like. They were engaged in "theatre". Everything was a show. Value was manufactured rather than created.

Theatre is when we pretend something is important without bringing forward tangible ideas or solutions. There are many public topics where we engage in theatre: environment, politics, equality, education. In the workplace, there are many more: leadership, HR, marketing, innovation, security.

I'm not saying these topics are unimportant - quite the opposite. They are so important that to treat them as theatre destroys their reputation. The same goes for Learning and Development. Every organisation and L&D practitioner knows the modern, fast-paced environment requires constant learning and better performance. So if we all agree on the problem, let's get serious about the solutions.

What are examples of L&D Theatre?

Since I joined and left the community, I've done a lot more reading. I now think L&D practitioners are our own worst enemy. We propagate the notion the L&D is soft and fluffy. The literature has great principles - OKRs, business results, learning in the moment of need... But the success stories are few and far between! We focus on the number of people that attend training rather than how it affects their decisions. We track soft, easy metrics rather than the difficult business metrics. Some key leaders are focused on changing how L&D operate. For example, the Learning and Development Podcast by David James hosts guests dedicated to valuable learning and development. I'm an avid listener.

Companies that hire L&D divisions often do so because they want to be seen as a place of learning. I repeat - they want to be seen as a place of learning. But learning by itself is of no benefit without a goal.

The best learning companies in the world understand this. Pixar uses learning as a means to create new ideas. Similarly, Google's learning culture exists to drive performance and business goals. These companies understand that learning is not the ultimate goal - it is a means to an end. Therefore, L&D practitioners must swallow this pill and focus on the outcomes the business wants to achieve.

Why does Theatre happen?

Theatre is a marketing exercise. We market things in our company to attract both talent and new customers. That's not to say we shouldn't market valuable assets in ourselves or our company. But if an asset exists for the sole purpose of marketing, it is an empty asset. Organisations must market valuable assets. If an organisation markets L&D as a cornerstone of its operations, it needs to deliver on it. Otherwise, people join the company and realise it was all for show.

How can we combat Theatre?

Beware of theatre and work to avoid it. The first step is to take ourselves seriously. How are you adding value to the business? At the end of the day, if we cannot add value, we might as well not be here.

Secondly, we need to take credit for the value we add. This is often overlooked in favour of a modest approach. But if people don't see what we do, they won't see the benefits and will perpetuate your work as theatre. So we advertise our successes and track our value added. For example, you could give an update on the monthly company call or the weekly management meeting to advertise what has been achieved. Or use a dashboard with your metrics and graphs to advertise successes.

As you create and advertise your value, everyone takes you more seriously. What's more, they will want to get involved and help out. This will lead to more opportunities to add value. Granted, none of this is easy and it takes consistent hard work.

How do we deal with Actors?

I mentioned that L&D practitioners can be our own worst enemy. The same might go for any other discipline. So how do we deal with the actors around us? There is no point is saying "Don't do this" unless you have a better idea. So suggest alternative ways of working.

Instead of focusing on maximising the number of people attending training classes, ask what brings value to each team. Instead of using the number of workshops as a success metric, track the number of workshop ideas that generated new business. Demonstrate value instead of counting numbers and show there is a better way of doing things. People will get on board when they see this way of working makes them look good too.

How do we deal with Theatre facilitators?

Some people only want theatre. They don't want to put in the work to add value to the company. They will always detract from the mission. A direct conversation results in an argument. Ignoring them results in sabotage. These detractors are not our friends when we introduce new ways of working.

Instead, show them incremental and early wins to demonstrate the value of the new ways. Do not focus on what they have to say, but make sure they hear other people promoting your new way of working. In time they will get on board when everyone else gets onboard.


Theatre is everywhere. Many people enjoy the theatre - I don't really have a problem if you do. But if I can't add value, then my employer makes a loss on me. In my mind, this is the equivalent of theft. If you want to break out of theatre, figure out what is valuable to the people around you and do more of it. You will be taken seriously, more opportunities will open up and you will feel great satisfaction in picking the difficult route.

0 kudos