Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 48;   November 27, 2002: Trips to Abilene

Trips to Abilene

by

When a group decides to take an action that nobody agrees with, but which no one is willing to question, we say that they're taking a trip to Abilene. Here are some tips for noticing and preventing trips to Abilene.

Now that Marilyn and Phil understood why Marigold was so hard to manage, they met with Ellen, Marigold's sponsor. After some small talk, Marilyn opened with, "So we think that the problem with Marigold might be that the team is too spread out. Between our site, Wellington, and Europe we've got too many time zones. We can't even find meeting times — someone's always asleep."

Abilene, Texas, USA"I'm not surprised," Ellen said. "I wondered about that from the beginning."

That got Phil's attention. "Wait, I thought you warned us against hiring locally. You said we'd never get approval in time, so we went with the Wellington people, even though they're 2000 miles away."

"Yes, true, I did warn you. But I think I said it would be 'a neat trick' getting the approval. All I meant was that you might need my help. I thought it would at least be worth a try."

Marilyn tried to smooth things out. "So you actually preferred a local team, but you went along with our Wellington idea because we seemed willing?"

"More or less."

In a trip to Abilene,
nobody feels that
the group is
behaving sensibly
Cooling off, Phil began to understand. "And we were trying to do what we thought you wanted."

Marilyn added, "A gifts-of-the-magi kind of thing," referring to the story by O. Henry.

"More like a trip to Abilene," Phil answered.

Phil is referring to an insightful work by Jerry Harvey, The Abilene Paradox, which describes how a group can commit to a course that no member favors. In a trip to Abilene, nobody feels that the group is behaving sensibly. Because they all feel that everyone else favors the group's choice, no one questions it. The group then takes action that no one agrees with.

How can you tell when you're on a trip to Abilene? And what can you do about it?

Notice your own doubts
Noticing your own reservations can be difficult. Practice by privately rating your own concurrence with group decisions as Low, Neutral, and High.
When you're uneasy, inquire
When you do notice that you're uneasy with a group decision, express your doubts, and ask specific questions. For instance, Ellen could have said, "I'm uneasy with the Wellington idea. How will we deal with the problems of managing them remotely?" Take care, though. In some settings critical inquiry can be seen as negative or unsupportive, even though it's almost always healthy and helpful.
Check for the Abilene itinerary
Whenever a team makes a decision of any kind, it's wise to check for trips to Abilene. Try asking, "I'd like to check: are we on a trip to Abilene?" A chorus of No's isn't a guarantee, but asking the question often works.

Protecting against trips to Abilene is worth the effort — tickets to Abilene are nonrefundable. Go to top Top  Next issue: Message Mismatches  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management 1st EditionRead more in a wonderful book by Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988. Order from Amazon.com.

See also "Staying in Abilene," Point Lookout for August 14, 2013, and "Virtual Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for March 4, 2015.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

A rock climber in Joshua Tree National Park, United StatesLet Me Finish, Please
We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?
A pattern that isn't a patternCoincidences Do Happen
When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin (left) with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan GreenspanThe Paradox of Confidence
Most of us interpret a confident manner as evidence of competence, and a hesitant manner as evidence of lesser ability. Recent research suggests that confidence and competence are inversely correlated. If so, our assessments of credibility and competence are thrown into question.
A Great Grey OwlHow to Waste Time in Virtual Meetings
Nearly everyone hates meetings, and virtual meetings are at the top of most people's lists. Here's a catalog of some of the worst practices.
A candleAnticipating Absence: Passings
In times more normal than ours, co-workers who pass on tend to do so one at a time. Disease or accidents rarely strike many co-workers in the same week, month, or year. There are exceptions — 9/11 was one such. This pandemic is another.

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Related programs

Managing in Fluid EnvironmentsMaking good decisions quickly is extremely important in dynamic, rapidly-changing environments. Because the Abilene Paradox can so easily interfere with sound decision making, understanding the paradox can be most helpful in such situations. My program, "Managing in Fluid Environments," explores de in situations where cision-making in such situations, where changes come along at such a rapid rate that the next change arrives before we reach the "New Status Quo" of the changes we're already dealing with. More about this program.

Are you planning an offsite or retreat for your organization? Or a conference for your professional society? My programs are fresh, original, and loaded with concrete tips that make an immediate difference. rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.comContact me to discuss possibilities.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendbTtLLSVlUPPCNkAner@ChacthFxWKdRwnLylOCDoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
More articles about conducting and participating in meetings!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!