Staying in Abilene
by Rick Brenner
A "Trip to Abilene," identified by Jerry Harvey, is a group decision to undertake an effort that no group members believe in. Extending the concept slightly, "Staying in Abilene" happens when groups fail even to consider changing something that everyone would agree needs changing.
Brian Urquhart of the Office of the UN Under-Secretaries Without Porfolios. (1 January 1956). In September, 1944, Urquhart was a Major in the 1st Airborne Division of British Airborne Forces, and the division's chief intelligence officer, during the preparations for Operation Market Garden. The operation was an airborne invasion of the Netherlands as a means of circumventing the German Siegfried Line, and thereby gaining entry into Germany. Major Urquhart had assembled intelligence, both from captured German soldiers and from the Dutch resistance, that led him to believe that Allied estimates of German strength in the area of Arnhem were erroneous — so much so that the errors represented a serious threat to Market Garden's success. He then arranged for aerial photographic reconnaissance, which confirmed his conjecture that SS Panzer divisions were operating in the area. Deeply troubled and concerned about the grave threat to the Market Garden plan, he tried to persuade the Commander of 1st Airborne Corps, Lt. Gen. Frederick Browning, of his case, but failed. Gen. Browning then ordered the division's chief medical officer, Col. Austin Eagger, to send Maj. Urquhart on sick leave because of "nervous strain and exhaustion." (See , by Martin Middlebrook, p. 66, for the full story) The operation went forward as planned, disaster ensued, and Maj. Urquhart's concerns were validated.
The treatment of Maj. Urquhart is an example of what people fear might happen when they raise questions about a group's decision to take a Trip to Abilene, or about a group's default decision to Stay in Abilene. This sort of treatment has consequences far beyond the boundaries of the groups in question. People everywhere know of these stories, and they bring that knowledge with them when they arrive in a group for the first time. Leaders who want group members to speak their minds would do well to address the existence of these stories whenever people join the group. Photo courtesy The United Nations.
Sometimes groups find that they've undertaken efforts that all members privately acknowledge are wrong-headed, even though all members agreed to undertake those efforts. Prof. Jerry Harvey identified this dynamic and named it a "Trip to Abilene." (See "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002, for more.) Many factors contribute to this dysfunction. Some group members fear that raising objections to the proposed effort might lead to personally unpleasant consequences; others, possibly without foundation, fear being ejected from the group altogether; others recall, sometimes incorrectly, harsh treatment of objectors to previous group decisions; and some fantasize harsh consequences based on experiences in other groups unrelated to the present. There are numerous other factors, because the human mind is endlessly inventive.
We usually regard a Trip to Abilene as a dysfunction that arises in the context of explicit group decisions. But sometimes groups face choices that lie entirely outside their collective awareness. One example is the choice to "keep doing what we're doing." When a group — by default — keeps doing what it's doing, when all members would regard that choice as wrongheaded if it were proposed and undertaken openly, that group is Staying in Abilene.
How does this happen? Here are some examples of perspectives that limit a group's ability to avoid Staying in Abilene.
- I'm no expert
- Some group members might believe that their uneasiness about Staying in Abilene is due to their own inferior grasp of the situation. They see that everyone around them is content. Believing that some of their colleagues are better positioned to judge the wisdom of Staying in Abilene, they set their own uneasiness aside.
- I'm outta here
- Some group members are approaching retirement, or are seeking, or have already found, employment elsewhere. They've detached from the group, emotionally if not formally. Even if they feel certain that Staying in Abilene is wrong-headed, their commitment to the group is so low that they have little interest in expressing their concerns.
- Tunnel vision
- Some group members are so involved in their own responsibilities that they have only limited situational awareness. Others with more global responsibilities might be willfully focused on small slices of their portfolios, and therefore unaware of the need to leave Abilene.
- Among the more Some group members might
believe that their uneasiness
about Staying in Abilene is
due to their own inferior
grasp of the situationinsidious of mechanisms contributing to Staying in Abilene is self-censorship of thought and feeling. If we let ourselves consciously experience our uneasiness about Staying in Abilene, we might feel obliged to express our uneasiness to others. And that can be so frightening that we choose instead to deaden ourselves to our own uneasiness.
Staying in Abilene can actually arise from changes in conditions that once justified a prior decision. Suddenly, we can find that we're in Abilene even when we never intended to go there. Are you in Abilene? Top Next Issue
For more about Trips to Abilene, see Jerry B. Harvey, "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement," in Organizational Dynamics, Summer 1988, pp. 17-43.
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