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  • Writer's pictureSETH MCCOLLEY

Are we going to Abilene?

Have you ever taken a trip to Abilene? I'm not asking if you've ever been to Abilene. I'm asking if you've ever taken a trip to Abilene. For those of you outside of the great state of Texas, Abilene is a small city just about smack dab in the center of Texas. The Abilene Paradox (below) is a paradox that illustrates how groups of intelligent (presumably) adults can sometimes make very poor decisions because individually they are hesitant to speak their mind and they default into going along with the group. Some of you may be familiar with this story. If so, jump down to the bottom. If you're not, check it out...

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them 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.

Sound familiar? Now...let me ask you again. Have you ever taken a trip to Abilene? We've all been there, right?! We go there when we don't have the time or the patience to argue about why Johnny is NOT the right candidate for the job, so we give him a "green/thumbs up" during the debrief session with the hiring manager and other interviewers. We go there when the boss asks if there are any questions or concerns about the asinine new policy that he's just put in place that's sure to waste time and company resources.

We go there when we agree to unrealistic team goals and objectives without actually initiating a discussion about how those goals are going to be met or what tools we're going to be given to accomplish the goals. Heck, I went there last week when a group of friends couldn't decide on where we wanted to eat dinner, so we ended up at a place that none of us really liked, eating a meal that none of us really enjoyed. Good times, right?

So the real question is...

How do we avoid taking these trips to Abilene?

Candor is a good place to start, but not every organization has the stomach for it. Pushing back is an option, but maybe we don't want to be seen as a "trouble maker". Is is best to just "go with the flow"? I think not.

What works for you? How do you avoid being sucked in by others? How are you making your voice heard?

Here endeth the lesson.

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