“It is well known that when like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.”
Carl Sunstein, NY Times September 2012
Have you or your team ever gone to Abilene? You probably have. I know I have in my career and the results and fallout can prove disastrous.
The real reason for so many wasted efforts, projects that go nowhere and consultations that miss the mark. The answer lies not with disagreement or dissent but instead with mismanaged agreement, also known as the Abilene Paradox.
A short story will illustrate what happens when you go to Abilene:
It's a hot, dusty afternoon in Texas. A husband and wife have visited her mother and father, they play dominoes on the terrace. After some stilted conversation the father-in-law suggests that they should go to Abilene for a meal, a journey of 53 miles in an old car without air conditioning. The son-in-law wants to protest but when his wife says she would like to go he says he would too. His mother-in-law also says she would like to go, so they all agree.
They drive without air conditioning through over 100 degrees of heat and dusty road to a diner, where they eat poorly prepared food, and everyone secretly feels disgruntled, but no one says anything. Then they drive back home again in stilted silence.
Back home after the silence continues the mother-in-law finally admits that she would have preferred to stay home but that she went along with everyone else. A minor argument then ensues as each says that they didn’t want to go to Abilene either but that they didn’t say anything in case they upset the others. So, they all missed out on staying home and enjoying the afternoon together.
The Abilene Paradox, coined by Professor Jerry B. Harvey, describes a problem found in many groups, teams and organisations, namely the inability to cope with agreement not disagreement. He found that most agreement in groups, teams and organisations gets based on false consensus. It occurs because individuals in the group feel they might get censured or ridiculed if they voice objections.
When this happens groups tasked with a job act on assumed agreement. At best the project lurches forward in a series of revisits to the original plan as disagreement, assumptions and misunderstandings arise, or worse, the wrong decision gets made, or worse still, the project just fails.
When teams blunder into the Abilene Paradox, they agree on actions that contradict what they want to achieve and defeat the very purpose of what they set out to accomplish. The Abilene Paradox represents a symptom of the inability to manage agreement - not the inability to manage conflict.
Harvey says that groups that suffer from the Abilene Paradox often show these characteristics:
- They agree individually in private about the nature of the situation or the problem facing the organisation.
- They agree individually in private about the steps needed to address the problem.
- Individuals fail to communicate their thoughts and feelings about the project to one another.
- Failing to communicate, as a group they make decisions that prove counterproductive for their intent.
- As a result, frustration, irritation and dissatisfaction arises, with cliques forming that pass the blame.
- The inability to manage agreement repeats itself if the process of communication does not get addressed.
or find the book by Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management; 1988, here (Not an affiliate link).
The Abilene Paradox explains why groups often come up with a solution no-one wants or cares about.
Effective group, team or organisational communication stems from the recognition that the process ought to have just as much precedence as the outcome. The group leader, facilitator or the chair must make explicit the expectations about the process of expressing respectful disagreement, professional opinions, and personal concerns to create a solution that people care about while delivering the desired outcome.
Here’s some tips for all group leaders, facilitators, and chairs and teams, be they newly formed or well established to avoid an unpleasant trip to Abilene:
As group leader, chair or facilitator ensure you:
Prioritise diversity of knowledge, skills and experience among group members. Avoid a group who share too many similarities. Aim for as many different perspectives as necessary for the task.
Keep the group size just big enough for the task while maintaining diversity.
Ensure other group members understand your role as a information manager and process coordinator.
Encourage all members to own the process and recognise the dangers of various cognitive or judgemental biases.
Make explicit to the group what each individual brings to the table and why it’s valued.
Make critical thinking and analysis the norm for discussions not finding quick consensus.
Set a tone where people can express their ideas without fear of being mocked or disregarded.
Develop an ethos where everyone respects the necessity for conflict of opinion but not conflict among individuals.
Get differences of opinion and points of view out in the open as soon as possible.
As group leader, chair or facilitator that you not share your opinions first or that your opinions take precedence over the group process.
Reiterate the need for all to maintain and manage the quality of the process over time.
Ask individuals to write down their points before they offer them to the group. The simple task of writing and reflecting on what one would like to say before saying it can help curb inappropriate comments arising.
Have we agreed? Let’s test it. If not then engage in another round of process. If you all do agree don’t waste time and energy on further discussion. Set SMART goals and move on.
Take comprehensive notes - sticky notes, flip chart, white board - it doesn’t matter. Make sure all can see the thought process and that it makes sense. Publish these notes quickly after the meeting. Get individuals to take a record there and then, easily done with an image taken on a smart phone or tablet.
Get good. The more you, as the leader, and the group members practise good group process the easier it becomes and the better it gets.