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

Trips to Abilene

by

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? rbrenZGhYKnOFrfFFHZkPner@ChacpGLXBagPiItTaDQXoCanyon.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:

Helping each otherWhen We Need a Little Help
Sometimes we get in over our heads — too much work, work we don't understand, or even complex politics. We can ask for help, but we often forget that we can. Even when we remember, we sometimes hold back. Why is asking for help, or remembering that we can ask, so difficult? How can we make it easier?
Huskies along the trail during start day, March 1998, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog RaceTactics for Asking for Volunteers: I
CEOs, board chairs, department heads and team leads of all kinds sometimes seek people to handle specific, time-limited tasks. Asking the group for volunteers works fine — usually. There are alternatives.
The Marx brothers: Chico, Harpo, Groucho and ZeppoTINOs: Teams in Name Only
Perhaps the most significant difference between face-to-face teams and virtual or distributed teams is their potential to develop from workgroups into true teams — an area in which virtual or distributed teams are at a decided disadvantage. Often, virtual and distributed teams are teams in name only.
The Japanese battleship Yamato during machinery trials 20 October 1941The Focusing Illusion in Organizations
The judgments we make at work, like the judgments we make elsewhere in life, are subject to human fallibility in the form of cognitive biases. One of these is the Focusing Illusion. Here are some examples to watch for.
The business end of a spark plugCreating Toxic Conflict: II
Some supervisors seem to behave as if part of their job description is creating toxic conflict among their subordinates. It isn't really, of course, but here's a collection of methods bad managers use that make trouble.

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. rbrenniDVqMWnQfVKoTLqner@ChacSVeTfDTlDvruPQIXoCanyon.comContact me to discuss possibilities.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Five almondsComing October 25: Workplace Memes
Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportAnd on November 1: Risk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep? Available here and by RSS on November 1.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenkmNhEmBypDrKEXcJner@ChacWeFHXcRoLcNROjQVoCanyon.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

Ten Project Management Fallacies: The Power of Avoiding Hazards
Most Ten Project Management Fallaciesof what we know about managing projects is useful and effective, but some of what we know "just ain't so." Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully. Even more important, avoiding these traps can demonstrate the value and power of the project management profession in general, and your personal capabilities in particular. In this program we describe ten of these beliefs. There are almost certainly many more, but these ten are a good start. We'll explore the situations where these fallacies are most likely to expose projects to risk, and suggest techniques for avoiding them. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about 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
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.