Saturday, January 12, 2008

Abiline Paradox

I was reminded today about the Abilene Paradox related by management theorist Jerry Harvey. The paradox begins during a terribly hot Texas summer day. A man and his wife were relaxing one afternoon with the wife's family when someone suggested a trip to Abilene (several miles away) for dinner. The man was was not too keen about driving across a desert, on a scorching summer day. Others seemed keen for the ride, so he kept his objections to himself.

When they arrive in Abilene, the food is bad and they return home exhausted, several hours later. One of the family members dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it."

The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.

The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon. (Note thanks to Wikipedia for providing me the final details and quotes).

Sometimes it is human nature to not want to go against the grain, or not want to "rock the boat." Harvey's point was that individuals in organizations are often concerned about standing out and being the "odd dissenting person," that groups can end up acting on decisions that don't necessarily reflect the views of any of their individual members, often defeating the very goal they are out to achieve. Another example of irrational decision-making.

What behaviors in your group or organization discourages individuals from openly voicing their feelings or pursuing their desires? If your group or family is on the road to Abilene, then you may arrive at a place where logical values can fall victim to group dynamics.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that I would read your blog about the Abiline Paradox today just after I read an article about Relational Perspective by William W. Wilmot.

Wilmot says: "One of the major causes of failure in organizations is a shortage of images concerning what they are up to, a shortage of time devoted to producing these images, and a shortage of diverse actions to deal with changed circumstance."

But I do like the way Harvey said it better.


Mojo said...

Great quote by Wilmot. Wilmot seems to be adding to Harvey's thoughts by reflecting on how organizations/groups don't spend enough time communicating and sharing a common group goal. Without "shared" goals, the progress of an organization can diverge from original intentions. I do like Wilmot's use of the word "image" -- a very descriptive term that makes me think.