A "Chinese fire drill" is an activity that involves a lot of bustle and chaos but achieves nothing. This term could be considered insulting due to its association of Chinese people with unproductive activity. Is there an alternative term without the racial connotations?

Edit: This was mistakenly flagged as a duplicate of this question, asking about a Japanese proverbial reference to one of Aesop's fables: "The mountains labored and brought forth a mouse". The expression refers to "speech acts which promise much but deliver little".(1) In this case the emphasis is on the chaotic execution of a pointless exercise, not on the difference between promises and results.


3 Answers 3


The executive fire drill is familiar to most people in the American business world.

As an example, the executive team at one of my clients subscribes to a variety of market research reports. These monthly and quarterly reports are really impressive -- huge 3-ring binders that contain sales data that's been sliced and diced better than a pastrami at a kosher deli. The problem is that management hasn't defined standard metrics, so if they dig long enough, they can find anything they want in the data. Consequently, every few months there's a full-scale executive fire drill when someone on the team finds a bit of data that seems to indicate they're losing ground to a competitor. Panicked, the president will call the exec team, along with several members of marketing and sales, into the conference room for a 90 minute analysis and debate about how they should respond.

From the Markovitz Consulting website.

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    Perfect! I guess "fire drill" in general has become an idiomatic term for this type of situation. Wiktionary also suggests "goat rodeo" as a related term.
    – augurar
    Jan 14, 2018 at 10:15
  • I first heard the term goat rodeo towards the end of the first Internet bubble. It was typically applied to an organization where the money was about to run out, and the managers were all looking for other jobs. So there was no actual management of the work. It's a great expression and I'm glad that it's still current :)
    – user205876
    Jan 15, 2018 at 18:21

"Clown car" would be my alternative. It's basically the image of clowns piling out of the car, running around, and piling back in. And no one likes clowns.

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    Hello, Tyrone. // Is this a recognised way to describe 'an activity that involves a lot of bustle and chaos but achieves nothing'? ELU looks at standard usages; creative metaphors belong on Writing.SE. Aug 18, 2021 at 11:50
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    Merriam-Webster has a figurative sense of clown car that relates to something (e.g. a committee or management team) being overstuffed with people, not the running around part. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clown%20car
    – Stuart F
    Aug 18, 2021 at 14:11
  • Clown car has already been suggested in one of the comments below the question. While it is OK on this site to incorporate somebody else's comment into one's answer, one is generally expected to acknowledge that one is doing that.
    – jsw29
    Aug 18, 2021 at 15:48
  • @jsw29 Generally yes, however, to discourage answer in comments, I for one am okay with stealing ideas from comments into an answer.
    – NVZ
    Apr 19, 2022 at 12:02
  • inmates running the asylum might also be considered offensive in this age of awareness of and sensitivity to mental illness.
  • rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic refers to futile activity.

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