Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 48;   November 27, 2002: Trips to Abilene

Trips to Abilene


When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question, we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.

Now that Marilyn and Phil understood why Marigold was so hard to manage, they met with Ellen, Marigold's sponsor. After some small talk, Marilyn opened with, "So we think that the problem with Marigold might be that the team is too spread out. Between our site, Wellington, and Europe we've got too many time zones. We can't even find meeting times — someone's always asleep."

Abilene,  Texas, USA"I'm not surprised," Ellen said. "I wondered about that from the beginning."

That got Phil's attention. "Wait, I thought you warned us against hiring locally. You said we'd never get approval in time, so we went with the Wellington people, even though they're 2000 miles away."

"Yes, true, I did warn you. But I think I said it would be 'a neat trick' getting the approval. All I meant was that you might need my help. I thought it would at least be worth a try."

Marilyn tried to smooth things out. "So you actually preferred a local team, but you went along with our Wellington idea because we seemed willing?"

"More or less."

In a trip to Abilene,
nobody feels that
the group is
behaving sensibly
Cooling off, Phil began to understand. "And we were trying to do what we thought you wanted."

Marilyn added, "A gifts-of-the-magi kind of thing," referring to the story by O. Henry.

"More like a trip to Abilene," Phil answered.

Phil is referring to an insightful work by Jerry Harvey, The Abilene Paradox, which describes how a group can commit to a course that no member favors. In a trip to Abilene, nobody feels that the group is behaving sensibly. Because they all feel that everyone else favors the group's choice, no one questions it. The group then takes action that no one agrees with.

How can you tell when you're on a trip to Abilene? And what can you do about it?

Notice your own doubts
Noticing your own reservations can be difficult. Practice by privately rating your own concurrence with group decisions as Low, Neutral, and High.
When you're uneasy, inquire
When you do notice that you're uneasy with a group decision, express your doubts, and ask specific questions. For instance, Ellen could have said, "I'm uneasy with the Wellington idea. How will we deal with the problems of managing them remotely?" Take care, though. In some settings critical inquiry can be seen as negative or non-supportive, even though it's almost always healthy and helpful.
Check for the Abilene itinerary
Whenever a team makes a decision of any kind, it's wise to check for trips to Abilene. Try asking, "I'd like to check: are we on a trip to Abilene?" A chorus of No's isn't a guarantee, but asking the question often works.

Protecting against trips to Abilene is worth the effort — tickets to Abilene are nonrefundable. Go to top Top  Next issue: Message Mismatches  Next Issue

Order from AmazonRead more in a wonderful book by Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988. Order from Amazon.com.

See also "Staying in Abilene," Point Lookout for August 14, 2013, and "Virtual Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for March 4, 2015.

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenNdMUFpYsomsCGdlAner@ChacsOFThDfkjgPwSBrAoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

The Thinker PowerPointingThink Before You PowerPoint
Microsoft PowerPoint is a useful tool. Many of us use it daily to create presentations that guide meetings or focus discussions. Like all tools, it can be abused — it can be a substitute for constructive dialog, and even for thought. What can we do about PowerPoint abuse?
A cup of coffeeHelp for Asking for Help
When we ask for help, from peers or from those with organizational power, we have some choices. How we go about it can determine whether we get the help we need, in time for the help to help.
The Johari WindowAssumptions and the Johari Window: Part I
The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's assumptions are.
A black kite, a species of hawkEmbolalia and Stuff Like That: Part II
Continuing our exploration of embolalia — filler syllables, filler words, and filler phrases — let us examine the more complex forms. Some of them are so complex that they appear to be actual content, even when what they contain is little more than "um."
Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and President Bush in a press conference on September 17, 2001Overconfidence at Work
Confidence in our judgments and ourselves is essential to success. Confidence misplaced — overconfidence — leads to trouble and failure. Understanding the causes and consequences of overconfidence can be most useful.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Related programs

Managing in Fluid EnvironmentsMaking good decisions quickly is extremely important in dynamic, rapidly-changing environments. Because the Abilene Paradox can so easily interfere with sound decision-making, understanding the paradox can be most helpful in such situations. My program, "Managing in Fluid Environments," explores de in situations where cision-making in such situations, where changes come along at such a rapid rate that the next change arrives before we reach the "New Status Quo" of the changes we're already dealing with. More about this program.

Are you planning an offsite or retreat for your organization? Or a conference for your professional society? My programs are fresh, original, and loaded with concrete tips that make an immediate difference. rbrenKkaHtEdLJiXCexzlner@ChactpwJJbSeKuMfpzdnoCanyon.comContact me to discuss possibilities.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Attending a virtual meeting, but disengagedComing October 26: Toward More Engaging Virtual Meetings: Part II
Here's Part II of a set of simple techniques to help virtual meeting facilitators enhance attendee engagement. Available here and by RSS on October 26.
Feeling shameAnd on November 2: Shame and Bullying
Targets of bullies sometimes experience intense feelings of shame. Here are some insights that might restore the ability to think, and maybe end the bullying. Available here and by RSS on November 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenaseqmIMyBczNqnKKner@ChacMTQpPbTqQuXvGaaCoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results
LeadiLeading Virtual Meetings for Real Resultsng or participating in virtual meetings — teleconferences, Web conferences, video conferences, and more — is challenging. Miscommunications, misunderstandings, distractions, politics, and interpersonal conflict all thrive in the typical environment of the virtual team. We'll inventory the challenges virtual meeting leaders and participants face, and provide tools for anticipating and addressing them. The focus of this program is practical — attendees will learn concrete techniques for preventing and dealing with the problems that arise in virtual meetings. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Workplace Politics Awareness Month KitIn October, increase awareness of workplace politics, and learn how to convert destructive politics into creative politics. Order the Workplace Politics Awareness Month Kit during October at the special price of USD 29.95 and save USD 10.00! Includes a copy of my tips book 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics which is a value! ! Check it out!
More articles about conducting and participating in meetings!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.