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How The Abilene Paradox Video Improves Team Decision Making

When we think about groups and the difficulties they encounter when making decisions, we most often assume it’s because certain personalities can’t get along or agree on a course of action. Or, we think about how groups make decisions in haste, only to find that they should have spent more time thinking about possible negative consequences. Rarely do we attribute bad decisions to group members’ predisposition to agree with one another and not “make waves” by offering an opposing opinion. Yet, sadly, the latter is more common than you think.

To get us started on an exploration of this topic, consider this story:

dominoesSitting around the porch on a 104° day in Coleman, Texas many years ago….a family decided 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 had really wanted to go. Each family member revealed that they would have strongly preferred to stay home, eat leftovers and play dominoes. One person had thrown out the idea assuming no one would go along with it, the next person had said “sure” so as not to offend the guy who came up with the idea, and the others said “yes” simply to be sociable.

One of the family members who took this trip was Professor Jerry Harvey. He was fascinated by what had occurred and kept asking himself….why would four reasonably sensible people agree to take a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like automobile, to eat mediocre food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of them really wanted to go?

Later, Harvey did some work as a management consultant where he encountered the strange behavior again. In helping organizations identify opportunities to improve results, people would secretly confess to him that the organization was investing time and money into questionable products or projects. These individuals never wanted to be the one to publicly say, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

In tribute to his family, Harvey called the phenomenon “the Abilene Paradox.”

Going Along to Get Along

At the heart of the Abilene Paradox are well-intentioned individuals who don’t really support a proposed idea or plan but go along with it because they think everyone else in the group wants to do it. There are several psychological reasons behind the behavior, the most common of which are:

  • negative fantasies or perceived risk (where, rather than focusing on solving the problem at hand, we fixate on the negative or harmful effects that might result if we speak out—such as when we convince ourselves we’ll be fired if we tell the boss we don’t like her idea)
  • fear of separation (where we fear being branded a “non team player” and risk alienation from the group )

How False Agreement Hurts Organizations

The Harvey family’s trip to Abilene had a somewhat ironic and humorous end; the “culprits” involved in making the decision sat around the porch commiserating about how they’d ruined a perfectly good evening for no reason.

But when the paradox occurs in organizations, the consequences can be far more serious:

  • Kept unaware of the reservations of some members, groups will approve and fund projects that are doomed for failure, wasting large amounts of time and money.
  • Organizations recruit and hire people for their unique knowledge and expertise, yet when key decisions are made, these people withhold that knowledge. The expertise is wasted.
  • When a decision ends badly, good people can be let go because they “should have anticipated” the inherent problems. In many cases, these people did anticipate the problems…they just didn’t say anything. Had they spoken up, the problems could have been averted and they’d still be employed.

How to “Skip the Trip”

If we believe our group or organization is caught in the Paradox – and is “on the road to Abilene” – what should we do about it?

The first step is to own up to our true beliefs and be open to the feedback we receive when we share them. By owning up, we let others know we’re concerned that the group may be making a decision based on inaccurate data. We might say something like: “I want to talk with you all about the proposed procedural change. Although I have previously said things to support the change, I frankly don’t think it will work. I suspect some of you may feel the same way and need to know where you stand. “

If we’ve misdiagnosed the situation and there is no Paradox operating in the group, then, by speaking up, we can at least introduce a little more discussion and debate. There is always the possibility that we will take some heat for having challenged the decision…but most of the time, people will appreciate the honesty.

When we’ve correctly diagnosed that the Paradox is operating in the group, the result of speaking up is absurdly quick and simple. It is common to hear one or more fellow group members say something like, “Oh my gosh, I agree! How about we figure out a better way to solve the problem?”

Of course, to fully rid a workplace of the Abilene Paradox, group leaders must create a climate that encourages employees to speak freely and share their honest opinions. This includes taking steps to invite people who have a stake in the decision, planning enough time for discussion, making sure there is enough data and information, setting a climate of openness and participation, and much more.

“Been There, Done That”

…is what people almost always say when they hear the story of The Abilene Paradox. And, it’s why The Abilene Paradox video is one of the best-selling organizational training videos of all time. The video depicts the Harvey family story in addition to other humorous examples of the paradox in action. It then provides practical instruction for team members and team leaders who choose NOT to “go to Abilene” in the future. It has helped thousands of organizations reduce wasted effort and resources.

The video can be purchased on DVD or for online delivery here. The DVD package includes workshop facilitation and participant materials. The online video comes with a post-test and downloadable certificate of completion.


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