Professor Jerry Harvey describes an interesting phenomenon he calls the “Abilene Paradox.” It’s based on his personal experience of a road trip to Abilene with his wife and parents. He explained “Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us really wanted to go.”
In other words, the Abilene paradox occurs when everyone goes along with something that no one really wants in order to avoid disagreement or “rocking the boat.” It’s fueled by the idea that silence means agreement.
Earlier this year, a director at my company suggested we implement an electronic requisition system through SAP. There were at least a dozen people in the room when it was suggested, and followed by several more meetings thereafter to discuss the progress. In the first few meetings no one disagreed with the proposal to implement the system within 3 months. A small team was assembled to begin developing the system requirements and the training that would be rolled out to the entire company as a result of the new process. We were headed to Abilene according to Dr. Jerry’s six specific characteristics:
1. Members individually agree in private about the nature of the situation: We all secretly thought there would be no way we can implement and roll-out a company wide tool in 3 months.
2. Members individually agree in private about what steps should be taken to address the problem: We all secretly thought multiple electronic requisition tools should be evaluated and tested before implementing one solution due to the various stakeholders involved.
3. Members fail to communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another: We made assumptions that it was the leadership team that wanted this and so we had to follow orders no matter what.
4. Members make collective decisions that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes: The team ended spending numerous hours on a tool they did not believe in, setting aside more urgent projects.
5. Members experience frustration, anger, irritation and dissatisfaction: The team blamed the CPO for the project and expressed anger and frustration. [We later found out the CPO didn’t even know about the project.]
6. Members do not deal with the generic issue – the ability to manage agreement: The cycle repeats itself, several members acknowledged that this was not the first project the director had proposed with unsuccessful results.
Interestingly, I learned about the Abilene Paradox about halfway through our project. I knew how I felt about it, and so asked the other members on the team along with a few stakeholders what they thought. Unanimously, everyone was against the SAP electronic requisition, although for varying reasons. Some felt the functions of the tool were limiting, others felt the greater problem was compliance by the company not the ability to submit a requisition electronically versus hardcopy, and others felt an alternative (existing) electronic tool (SharePoint) was a good solution. When asked why they didn’t bring it up at the meetings, some said they didn’t feel it was their place to argue with the director, others had hoped the functional issues would naturally stop the project, and others simply didn’t feel comfortable “rocking the boat.”
In the end, at a project team meeting with the director and a staff meeting with the CPO, I brought up the concerns of the team on the project and although the director disagreed with me, the evidence I shared publicly, resulted in the CPO agreeing the tool cannot be implemented enterprise-wide without more testing and a fully developed change management plan. We were about 75% of the way to Abilene but I stopped it before it exploded in our faces – which would have resulted in angry end-users complaining about the difficult to use electronic requisition process.
It felt empowering to be able to stop a bad idea before it got worst. It felt great defending my team members’ concerns, although it was nerve-wracking to try to confront my superiors. But now I know its something I can do again in the future if I have to.