Old map Abilene 1883, Wikipedia Commons

I admit I have never been to the actual city of Abilene, but I have been to the metaphorical destination of Abilene that Jerry Harvey described in his Abilene Paradox.  In his effort to recount how people often do things as a group that privately no one wants to do, he used a personal example that involved a family visit to west Texas and a long sticky car ride to a café in Abilene.  If you have never read it, I encourage you take a few minutes and read at least the first few pages … you will likely remember similar “trips” you have taken.

The publication of Harvey’s personal set of observations back in the 1980’s, raised the awareness that it was just as important to manage agreement, as it was to manage conflict in an organization.  The dynamics of the Abilene Paradox involve people privately thinking one thing but acting out something very different because they aren’t sharing their real opinions. Once in place, this cycle can get repeated over and over again with growing frustration.

So, how do you break this cycle?  Someone has to test his or her perception of reality with others.  It is that absurdly simple … and difficult.  It’s a bit like being the first to state aloud that the king is wearing no clothes.  It’s high risk, but not stating what you believe can be just as disastrous to you and the organization in lost time and energy spent on repeated trips to Abilene.

Harvey ends his observations on the Abilene Paradox by telling the Greek Myth about Sisyphus who was condemned to push a giant rock up a hill just to have it roll down again … sort of a daily trip to Abilene.  Unable to challenge his fate, Harvey hoped that Sisyphus was at least able to recognize the absurdity of his situation.  He points out that we all “push rocks” from time to time … and the best we can do is to recognize it when we do.

  • What was the last “rock” you pushed?  
  • When was the last time you risked telling the king he had no clothes? 
  • What is the toll of repeated Abilene experiences on an organization?