|Instead of improving decision making, too much respect and regardfulness may lead to poor decisions when ruling is done by a committee.
The Abilene Paradox
Rule by Committee, or
By Oliver F. Lehmann, PMP
Are we on the Way to Abilene?
The agreed-upon decision is always the good decision. Is it?
In management best practices—and especially those of project management—you often find an approach to handling stakeholder support by involving all of them in decision making processes to the maximum extent that is possible. It is a signal of respect and regardfulness and should prevent stakeholders to come back later and say "this is actually not what I wanted".
Jerry B. Harvey described in his book The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988) how a joint decision can be opposite to what all participants in the decision making process would have really preferred.
A parable by Jerry Harvey (1974)
Jerry Harvey told the story of a 104 degrees F (40° C) hot day when he and his wife visited her parents in Coleman, Texas. They were comfortably sitting on a porch playing dominoes, when his father-in-law suggested to take a trip to Abilene (53 miles or 87 km away) to have dinner in a cafeteria. Jerry's wife Beth said, "Sounds like a great idea. I'd like to go. How about you Jerry?"
Jerry himself, despite of the long and hot drive, thought that he had to agree with the group desire and said, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law said, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time," and so they took the trip to Abilene.
The drive was hot, dusty, and long and the food in the cafeteria was bad as well. Exhausted and frustrated, they arrived back home four hours and 104 miles later. Jerry dishonestly said, "It was a great trip, wasn't it."
But his mother-in-law said: "Well, to tell the truth, I really didn't enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn't have gone if you hadn't pressured me into it". Jerry replied, "I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn't want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." His wife Beth felt the need to comment: "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 said that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
The four found themselves perplexed how they could decide together to take a trip which none of them really wanted. Each would have preferred to stay comfortably playing dominoes on the porch, but did not admit to it when they still could have taken the option and save the afternoon.
An interesting aspect in Jerry Harvey's parable is that the discussion turned finally to the question: Who is to be blamed? They could have taken it with humor. But instead, back to Coleman everybody was not only unhappy about the bad experience; on top of that, nobody wanted to be the culprit.
Most of us perform best when we are in an atmosphere of trust and self confidence. While the strategy of participants in the Abilene Paradox is to avoid conflict, it nevertheless creates an environment of distrust and grudge. People tend to finger-point on others and to build virtual fences around them.
The Abilene Paradox of yesterday may then become the root cause of the Abilene Paradox of today: Do not talk too much, you may expose yourself and may be misunderstood.
But less talking leads to more misunderstandings.
How relevant is the Abilene Paradox in business life?
The more one meditates about the Abilene Paradox, the more often one finds it occurring in management. It happens not only in the family, but also in business, and in politics.
For example: There is at some places a tendency to replace individual project managers by committees of two or more who have more or less equal rights. The same happens even with project sponsors. The chance for those projects to come in on time and budget and with a deliverable as required drops significantly.
Lets look at another example: NASA's Challenger and Columbia disasters.
Reportedly (see documentation at history.nasa.gov), the Abilene paradox played a role as a root cause of NASA's Challenger accident in 1986, when a crew of seven was killed in a fireball some seconds after start. There has been an unconscious agreement to not pass engineers' concerns on specific items (badly performing O-rings) to management, but instead to ensure a start on January 28, even if risks were too high.
It is further reported that after the incident, a bureaucratic security system got installed at NASA which discouraged personnel to take over responsibility for handling of risks when necessary. According to the Abilene Paradox, this was clearly the opposite to what was necessary.
So it may not have been simply bad luck when NASA lost a second Space Shuttle named Columbia 17 years later on February 1, 2003.
Obviously, the right lessons from the Challenger failure had not been learned, the report written by the official Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) names as a cause
"...organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion; lack of integrated management across program elements; and the evolution of an informal chain of command and decision-making processes that operated outside the organization's rules."
If you are in management of an organization or a a project team, this may sound quite familiar to you. You will know those ineffective meetings without decisions at the end, or false decisions when nobody wants to clearly say yes or nowhen necessary.
Overcoming the Abilene Paradox
We recently found an article written by Lyndsay Swinton, Owner of Management For The Rest Of Us, which gives good advice on how to prevent from the Abilene Paradox in meetings (republished here with permission by the author):
The Abilene Paradox: 7 Tips for Effective Communication in Business Meetings
Why go to the far away town of Abilene when no-one wants to go? That’s the example paradox given by Jerry B. Harvey to explain the phenomenon of group-think – the arch enemy of effective communication in business meetings.
The Abilene Paradox explains why groups often come up with a solution no-one expressly wants or cares about (a camel is a horse designed by a committee :>). Unseen pressure to conform curtails creativity, dissent and singular thought.
Effective communication in business meetings is about all of those things – disagreement, expressing opinions, voicing concerns – and harnessing the energy to create a solution that people want and care about.
Avoid visiting the far away town of Abilene by following these tips for effective communication in business meetings.
1. Speak up everyone!
Create an environment where people can speak up without fear of mockery, reprisals or condemnation. Use meeting “ground-rules” written up on a flip-chart, to ensure everyone in the meeting understands what behavior is expected and acceptable.
2. Stick to plan
Agree and stick to an agenda. Don’t go off topic, however interesting a diversion this may be.
3. Two ears, one mouth!
Let one person speak at a time. If this proves hard to enforce, maybe use a “talking stick” or some other object which is held by the speaker and passed to the next speaker.
4. Empty vessels make the most noise
Increase the thought put into individuals' contributions by encouraging them to write down their points before it is their turn to speak.
5. Agreed? Let's move swiftly on
Avoid “violently agreeing” within the group – if you have achieved consensus, move on and don’t waste time discussing why the idea is so good.
6. One meeting one memory
Take comprehensive notes on a flip chart, for all to see, that way you'll reach agreement quicker than if everyone is taking their own, slightly different, notes. Publish these notes quickly after the meeting.
7. Get a reputation
Behavior breeds behavior, so be consistently good at running meetings and in turn, your meetings will become more effective.
The Abilene Paradox explains why people often do the things that damage the group most, whilst trying to achieve the best for the group. Avoid going to Abilene by following these tips for effective communication in business meetings.
Find more at Management For The Rest Of Us.
Can Insight Tree help?
Of course it can.
A project manager—certified PMP, of course—of a major German IT company which is running projects under contract gave us recently feedback on how he uses Insight Tree during meetings.
He found that decision making in groups often takes too much time and didn't lead to quality results and decisions. Often, even C-Suite level executives had problems with group decisions and their meetings are the most expensive ones.
He told us that he uses Insight Tree on a notebook computer linked to a data projector and develops the tree in real time together with the other meeting participants.
The results are not only used for decision making but can immediately used in presentations etc. to inform stakeholders who could not participate.
"Instead of getting lost in a complex pattern of decisions and chances," the PMP said, "the discussion gets focused on describing a process of decision making an implementing. The tool further helps us by assigning some clear metrics like payoff and chance and assign ownership as well as due dates."
He goes on: "Breaking down a complex system of decision and chance into smaller nodes means that we can find agreement on detail level which is much easier to handle, and when this is achieved, the optimum is just a button away. Having reached this point, agreement is what it should be: The best decision according to the information available and processed.