Abilene Paradox: Part II

The premise of Dr. Harvey’s chapter is based on a story that played itself out in a small Texas town about 2 hours drive from Abilene. The event occurred one oppressive summer afternoon while the author and his wife were visiting her parents.

A lazy game of dominos was slowly unfolding on the front porch. The heat was being held at bay, somewhat, by a gently circulating fan when the tortoise paced action was disrupted by the suggestion that a trip to Abilene for supper might be in order.

The well intended suggestion was made by the father-in-law out of a concern that his guests might be bored. As a result, they spent 4 miserable and dust choked hours riding round trip down dirt roads to Abilene in an un-air-conditioned Buick. And as it turned out both the meal and the trip were memorable—in a negative sort of way.

paradox_logical-300x250In reality, while they were all really quite content to keep playing dominos on the porch, each sacrificed their preference in what they thought was a gesture of good will toward the others. Yet, in the final analysis, no one was really was happy with the decision.

Why then did they agree to go to Abilene? It was a conspiracy to agree based on assumptions and thought-less mind reading and in the desire to gain approval. It seems we will say or do anything, even go to Abilene, in order to avoid a disagreement.

By extension, this same scenario plays itself out over and over again in our organizations. It leads to the perpetuation of many otherwise unnecessary inefficiencies and frustrations. We can save ourselves and our organizations much in the way of time and precious resources if we understand and guard against this natural, if often misguided tendency.

A CD has been made of the Abilene Paradox that depicts this and several similar organizational scenarios, and is often used in organizations today. If you can get access to a copy, it will treat you to an entertaining and educational 26 minute synopsis of the chapter.

If the CD is not available to you, the book is also definitely worth the read, but perhaps not if you have no interest in Phrog Pharms, the Myth of Abraham, and the Tyranny of the Gunsmoke Phenomenon…

Harvey, Jerry, (1988) The Abilene Paradox, Jossey Bass.