Abilene Paradox by Jerry B. Harvey

A great deal of time and energy is spent on attempting to stage great customer and employee experiences.  Examples can be found everywhere. Earlier this week the local Ann Arbor newspaper described the University of Michigan‘s five-year expenditure of over $450 million on dorm renovations to improve the student living experience. In the competition to recruit students, no one questioned the need.

U of M is following a fairly typical path improving the physical “stage” on which the student experience is played out.  Beginning here is concrete and visible. Changes in the physical environment often lead to changes in processes and finally, to improving the human interactions through better scripting, training and modeling.  ALL of these are great and together can greatly enhance an experience whether is on a campus, in a doctor’s office or in your own business.

So what does this have to do with the Abilene Paradox?  WITH the concrete steps typically taken to improve an experience, there is still need to account for the messier side of organizational dynamics.  Too many change efforts fail before the proverbial paint dries.  One of the most common reasons is the Abilene Paradox where everyone publically goes along with the changes to improve the experience, but no one privately supports the effort.  Jerry Harvey first labeled this phenomenon in his tale about his family’s “trip to Abilene” — a journey no one privately wanted to take, but because no one objected, they colluded in one another’s misery.

Most experience efforts are not quite this bad, but unfortunately, many of them leave key stakeholders out of the process or without much of a voice.  They tend to fall silent and go-along resulting in a “stage” that looks great, but a play that stinks.

How can this be avoided?

  1. In the initial stages, special care needs to be taken to hear from lots of different voices in multiple setting where individuals can feel free to express their real opinions or concerns.
  2. As change efforts begin, some level of involvement and engagement needs to be cultivated from those who will be living with the outcome.  If they don’t begin to own the change at this point, they never will.
  3. As the change effort is about to launch, there needs to be a final investment of time in making sure everyone has both a public and private opportunity to comment.  This takes time, but can save a lot of heartache in the long run.

Changing an experience is more than changing the scenery and the props. It often involves a more fundamental change in the culture.

What do you feel should come first?  The culture change or the physical enhancements?