In his classic article, “The Abilene Paradox,” professor Jerry Harvey tells the story of his family’s decision to drive their ’58 Buick – with no air conditioning – 53 miles to Abilene for supper.
When they returned home several hours later, hot and exhausted, it turned out that none of them really wanted to make the trip. Each family member revealed that they would have strongly preferred to stay home and play dominoes. As professor Harvey describes the situation: “Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature, through a cloud-like dust storm, to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.”
But this phenomenon is not limited to families. Professor Harvey goes on to describe several humorous workplace scenarios where members of organizations “take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve.” In tribute to his family trip, he calls this phenomenon, “The Abilene Paradox.”
Contrary to conventional wisdom, which states that the management of conflict is one of the most pressing issues in our workplaces, professor Harvey argues that the inability to cope with, or manage, agreement is, in fact, the key issue for organizations that want to solve problems and make sound decisions.
About the author: Peter J. Jordan is President and CEO of CRM Learning. He directed the original Abilene Paradox video and was Executive Producer of the revised version. This is the first in a series of articles to be posted on the Abilene Paradox and how organizations can “skip the trip”.