Group decision-making, when not transparent or properly facilitated, can lead to awful decisions. The Abilene Paradox captures why four intelligent adults would agree and decide to do something that none of them wanted to do in the first place.
It may sound absurd that four intelligent adults would agree and decide to do something that none of them wanted to do in the first place, but it is effectively found in a small but well-received story. I first learned of Harvey’s article while receiving my MBA at Kellogg, and was recently reminded of it during a discussion with a student after class, who was in the process of earning her own MBA.
The Abilene Paradox Background
Based on a story that starts in the remote town of Coleman, Texas, four adults travel in a dust storm and 104 degrees (Fahrenheit) heat in an un-air-conditioned ’58 Buick to a cafeteria in Abilene. After returning, the story covers their conversation that could be summed up with the comment “ I didn’t want to go.” Of course, none of them did, so why did they go?
Jerry B. Harvey’s Abilene Paradox tale can be found sourced in the October issue of the Organizational Dynamics journal, 1985. Its message is timeless. He identifies the inability to manage agreement as a major source of organizational dysfunction. He never mentions the need or value of a professionally trained facilitator. Rather, he describes the caller of the meeting as the “confronter.” A professionally trained facilitator provides a more effective term as they should challenge participants (rather than “confront” them).
Therefore, in his article, Harvey covers six issues.
Six Abilene Paradox Lessons
- Symptoms of the paradox (arguably the most important of the six)
- People in organization shave private conversations . . .
- . . . and make private agreements as to the steps to “cope” with the situation or problem they face.
- They fail to communicate their underlying desires or beliefs to one another leading to a misperception of the collective reality.
- Members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes . . .
- . . . resulting in frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with the organization that causes blame toward “other” subgroups.
- Since they are unable to manage agreements (rather than conflict), the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity.
- How they arise in organizations
- The underlying causal dynamics
- Implications for organizational behavior
- Views toward the broader existential issue
The Abilene Paradox provides fun and enjoyment because his thesis asserts that the failure to communicate effectively runs rampant through most large organizations. Facilitated decision-making provides a dependable answer or alternative to absurd decision-making. Why? Because people speak symptomatically. Without proper challenge, they do not think clearly nor do they articulate the driving cause or rationale behind their beliefs.
The Watergate Paradox
Also citing the “Watergate” fiasco that brought down President Nixon, Harvey notes that . . .
“ . . . the central figures of the Watergate episode apparently knew that, for a variety of reasons, the plan to bug the Watergate did not make sense.”
Avoid your own Watergate, or an exhausting 106-mile trek by embracing the value of a trained, professional facilitator.
Remember that two people arguing about the spiciness of a chili or curry are both right. By title, they are called ‘subject(ive)’ matter experts. Your role as the facilitator through the method of challenge will get them to agree that regardless of spiciness, the chili or curry measures 1,400 Scoville Units.
Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.
Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)
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