Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 15, Issue 9;   March 4, 2015: Virtual Trips to Abilene

Virtual Trips to Abilene

by

One dysfunction of face-to-face meetings is the Trip to Abilene, which leads groups to make decisions no members actually support. It can afflict virtual meetings, too, even more easily.
A highway sign on the way to Abilene

A highway sign on the way to Abilene

As if face-to-face meetings weren't challenging enough, most organizations have moved along to Level Five of the Game of Meetings: virtual meetings. They hope to accomplish much more work in much less time. Often they actually accomplish much less work in much more time. Of the many dangers awaiting them in Level 5 is the Virtual Trip to Abilene, which is the virtual version of a face-to-face danger.

In a Trip to Abilene, which is a group dysfunction first identified by Jerry Harvey, a group commits to something no members favor. Privately, nobody feels that the group is behaving sensibly, but everybody feels that the rest of the group favors the decision. Nobody objects. Everybody expresses support.

Trips to Abilene happen because everyone wants to accommodate everyone else. The same can happen in virtual meetings, but the probabilities are different because virtual meetings are different.

Here are some of the differences. Trips to Abilene in virtual meetings are…

…more likely because expressing misgivings is more difficult
Expressing To avoid offending others,
some will go along with
what they see as a
gathering consensus
misgivings is more difficult in virtual meetings. For example, in conference calls, people cannot see others' facial expressions or gestures. Raising objections tactfully is more difficult, which makes some people reluctant to object. Even when someone does raise objections, grasping accurately the sense and intensity of the objections is more difficult.
…both more likely and less likely because people are less connected
People in virtual meetings typically know each other less well than do people in face-to-face meetings. Some are therefore unsure about where others stand on the question at hand. To avoid offending others, some will go along with what they see as a gathering consensus. On the other hand, because people are less connected, they're sometimes less concerned about offending each other by raising objections, which reduces the likelihood of Trips to Abilene.
…more likely because of the perception that the mistake won't affect me
In virtual meetings, if the group undertakes a decision that a member feels is incorrect, a reduced sense of connection makes it easier for members to shrug it off and let the group go ahead with the blunder.
…more likely because some people aren't paying attention
Inattentiveness is common in virtual meetings. People who don't pay attention can sometimes miss details of the question at hand. They might have objected if they realized the full import of the decision, but because of inattentiveness, they can mistakenly support something they might otherwise oppose. Because of the mechanisms described above, inattentiveness can kick off a cascade of support for a proposal that would otherwise fail.

In all meetings, education is the best defense against Trips to Abilene. Make sure people know how Trips work, and when in doubt, do an anonymous Abilene Check to be sure you aren't going there. Go to top Top  Next issue: Historical Debates at Work  Next Issue

Leading Virtual Meetings for Real ResultsAre your virtual meetings plagued by inattentiveness, interruptions, absenteeism, and a seemingly endless need to repeat what somebody just said? Do you have trouble finding a time when everyone can meet? Do people seem disengaged and apathetic? Or do you have violent clashes and a plague of virtual bullying? Read Leading Virtual Meetings for Real Results to learn how to make virtual meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot shorter. Order Now!

Read 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 "Trips to Abilene," Point Lookout for November 27, 2002, and "Staying in Abilene," Point Lookout for August 14, 2013.

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See also Effective Meetings and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

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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.
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