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Understanding the Abilene paradox.

Understanding the Abilene Paradox

--Wednesday, August 14, 1991

It was a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, in the early 1970s when Texas native Jerry Harvey, professor of management science at George Washington University, was visiting his in-laws with his wife. They were playing dominoes and sipping lemonade in the living room as the wind was blowing topsoil through the opened windows. Harvey recalled the dreaded words of his father-in-law, "Let's get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria." On that 104-degree Sunday afternoon, Harvey thought, "Fifty-three miles in this dust storm and heat in an un-airconditioned 1958 Buick?" But then his wife chimed in, "Sounds great. I'd like to go. How about you, Jerry," Jerry didn't disagree.

But his predictions were fulfilled. "The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived," Harvey told convention delegates during his presentation. "The Abilene Paradox: Are You Leading Your Association to Abilene?" On their return from the "hole-in-the-wall cafeteria," Harvey described "the family fight of the decade"--everyone complaining that they only went to Abilene because everyone else wanted to go. "We'd done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation didn't make sense," he explains.

But Harvey's family experience is not atypical and led Harvey to coin the phrase, "The Abilene Paradox." Events frequently gather momentum and take on a life of their own, despite the fact that nobody wants to take part in them. "The problem of contemporary organizations--corporations, voluntary and governmental institutions, and associations--is their inability to cope with the fact that we often agree with one another and are not in conflict. But since we are not honest with one another, it keeps us from doing anything significant."

Harvey shared several real-life examples--from people getting married who don't really love each other to organizations investing millions of dollars into projects that everyone knew wouldn't work. "Organizations frequently take actions contrary to the desires of their members and defeat purposes they set out to achieve," he explains.

According to Harvey, there are four landmarks that cause people to make various decisions. Here is a brief description of each landmark, which Harvey hopes will provide organizations with a better understanding of the risks that are an inevitable part of the journey to Abilene.

Action anxiety: We take actions contradicting our understanding of problems because thinking about acting in accordance with what we believe needs to be done makes us intensely anxious. Thus, we decide to pursue an unworkable project, for example, rather than acting in a manner congruent with our beliefs.

Negative fantasies: Action anxiety is partly caused by negative fantasies that we have about what will happen if we act in accordance with our understanding of what is sensible. They provide us with an excuse that releases us psychologically--both in our eyes, and the eyes of others--from the responsibility of having to be the problem solver.

Real risk: Risk is a reality of life. All actions have consequences. As a result of our unwillingness to accept risk, we may opt to take our organizations to Abilene rather than run the risk of ending up somewhere worse.

Fear of separation: We are afraid of things--separation, alienation, and loneliness--we know about. Research shows that we have a need to feel connected and wanted. We are afraid to take risks that may result in a separation from others. This fear ultimately causes organizations, for example, to fund projects that none of its members want.

To learn more about Harvey's insights into organizational life, pick up a copy of Harvey's book, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, at the ASAE Book Display.
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Title Annotation:American Society of Association Executives Official Convention Daily; organizational management
Publication:Association Management
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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