The Abilene Paradox: When Agreement is Bad

Not sure where your team is heading?  Wonder what will be waiting for you when you get there?  Sounds like you might just be on the Bus to Abilene.  Here’s how to recognize if you’re on that Bus and how to get it turned in the right direction.

The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene paradox was an idea introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in 1974.  It goes like this:

One hot summer afternoon in Coleman, Texas, a family is playing dominoes on the porch, when the father-in-law proposes that they all take a trip to Abilene for dinner, 53 miles away.

One after another, the other members of the family agree that it sounds like a good idea, even though none of them actually thinks the idea is very appealing.  But they agree because they think everyone else wants to go, and they don’t want to upset the group.

The ride to Abilene is long, hot and dusty.  At the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive was.  Hours later, they return home, exhausted.

Someone comments, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”  but the Mother-in-Law is honest and says that she really would rather have stayed at home.  All the others admit that they felt the same way, too.  They look at each other, stunned at how they had agreed to take a trip that no one really wanted to go on.

What does it Mean to go to Abilene?

The power that a social group has over the individual can be very strong.  In the Abilene paradox, we can see how people will often go along with something they don’t necessarily agree with because they want to be seen as part of the group.  No one wants to be the one to “rock the boat.”

Doing what each thought the group wanted to do took a higher priority over what each individual thought best.  In the end they all paid for it with a long dusty, meaningless trip in the hot Texas sun.

Nothing against Abilene, but…

I have nothing against the good people of Abilene, but how do you prevent an unnecessary visit?

It’s a matter of the environment you establish as a leader.

When you are putting your plan together, if you place heavy emphasis on conformity, on forcing agreement, and crushing opposing points of view, you may think you are achieving unanimity, but you may end up paying a price.

Houston, We Have a Problem

As a leader in the planning stage, it’s those dissenting opinions that you need most.

The strength and creativity of a group comes in part from its diversity.  If everyone is thinking the same way, you will miss hidden opportunities and creative solutions. Instead, you’ll end up on the bus.

Creative strength comes from diversity, not conformity. #leadership Click To Tweet

People on your team need to feel comfortable enough to say that they don’t think something is a good idea, and explain why, without fear of being rejected by the group.

Abilene Paradox – The Takeaway

So seek diversity on your team; encourage discussion and debate during the planning stage, and thank those who are willing to speak up.  If everyone is agreeable, get suspicious and ask harder questions.

Once the decision is made, then it is time for everyone to pull together with all they have, but until then, there is strength in dis-unity.

In planning, encourage debate; after the decision, unity of action is paramount. Click To Tweet

Lead On!

For more tips and techniques for creative decision making, check out this post on Breaking the Idea Logjam,  or this video on brainstorming entitled So Crazy it Might Just Work.

Photo Credits:
Family on Porch:
OakleyOriginals via Compfight cc

Desert Road: William Warby

Who else would enjoy this post?
About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

Related Posts
Welcome to the Team!
It's great to have you join us!
Ken Downer - Founder of RapidStart Leadership
Please check your email
to confirm (and get a gift)
Get the leadership tools to help
2x Month * Direct Email * No Spam

They are ready to follow...

...are you ready to lead?

lead your virtual team

Subscribe now