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Are We Going to Abilene?

Written by Ed Callahan on March 25, 2013

Implementers EOS

Going to AbileneThe Abilene Paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. The Abilene paradox was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement. The name of the phenomenon comes from an anecdote in the article which Harvey uses to elucidate the paradox.

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, TX, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law then says, “Of course I want to go. I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife says, “I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that.” The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

The text above is copied directly from a wikipedia article about The Abilene Paradox which you can read here.

This is not a new concept; I am sure you have witnessed it. You have probably even participated in it at some point in your career. We are just human beings after all. Sometimes it is difficult to speak up against what seems to be the prevailing norm or group consensus. It is even more difficult if you disagree with your boss. You wouldn’t be the first to remain quiet. Some monumentally bad business decisions have been made this way.

The EOS prescription for counterbalancing this paradox is to be open and honest about what you feel and believe and to act for the greater good of the company. You must speak up. In order for that to work leadership teams have to create an environment where there are no adverse consequences for speaking up. That is what companies implementing EOS do. See my earlier post here about Open & Honest Conflict. It is a journey; it doesn’t happen overnight. But you must go there.

But one thing you could do in a meeting, when you fear a crazy group decision is being made, is to simply ask – “Are we going to Abilene?” And then be brave enough, open and honest enough, to explain your point of view.

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