Trips to Abilene
by Rick Brenner
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."
"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 sensiblyCooling 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. Top Next Issue
Read 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.
Do 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!
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See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 5: Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part IV
- Words of wisdom are pithy sayings that can be valuable so often that we believe them absolutely. Although these sayings are often valuable, they aren't universally valid. Here's Part IV of a growing collection. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
- And on August 12: When the Answer Isn't the Point: Part I
- When we ask each other questions, the answers aren't always what we seek. Sometimes the behavior of the respondent is what matters. Here are some techniques questioners use when the answer to the question wasn't the point of asking. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
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