Over three decades ago, one of the pioneers in Organization Development, Jerry Harvey, wrote about the tendency of groups to take what he called “trips to Abilene.” When he first published his original Trip to Abilene, he had just wished to use a personal example to illustrate how organizations often have more trouble managing their supposed agreement than managing their conflict. He was surprised by the response he got … the problem was much more widespread than he suspected.
It is a simple tale of family visit to west Texas that takes a strange and unwelcome turn that has everyone piling into an 1958 Chevy before the advent of air conditioning and traveling the 53 miles to eat at a café in Abilene. Think hot, think gritty, think sticking to the seats, think open windows blowing in more heat than air … well, you get the picture.
Jerry turns this simple tale into a parable to illustrate what can happen when events gather momentum and take on lives of their own, in spite of the fact that nobody wants to take part in them. I have been on trips to Abilene and I suspect you have too.
So what is the Abilene Paradox? It is when organizations do things that contradict to what they really want to do. When they do this, they defeat the very purpose they were trying to achieve. Think of this another way — our inability to manage agreement is a huge potential source of dysfunction in most organizations.
So what are the symptoms and how do you know when you may be on your way to Abilene?
- When we all agree privately as to the nature of the problem facing the organization, but we don’t say anything.
- When we all agree privately on the steps that would be required to cope with the problem we face, but again say nothing.
- When we fail to accurately communicate our desires or beliefs to one another. In fact, we do just the opposite and lead one another into misperceiving the collective reality.
- With invalid and inaccurate information about reality, we “go along” and make collective decisions that lead us to do things that are contrary to what we want to do, and thereby arrive at results that are counterproductive.
- As a result, we all experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with the organization … and potentially with each other.
- Finally, if we do not deal with our inability to manage agreement, this cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. Groan … another trip to Abilene!
- When was your last trip to Abilene?
- How do you avoid them?