One of my favorite business stories is the book, The Abilene Paradox. I had the pleasure of hearing author Jerry B. Harvey tell the story first hand at a conference years ago. I could never tell it the way Jerry does, so I won’t even try. But do check out the synopsis on Wikipedia…it’s really good.
The concept of the paradox lies in the perils of groupthink or having a herd mentality. It’s an example of a group going along with a decision even though people individually don’t agree with it. A simple illustration of the paradox could be the office birthday celebration. It’s someone’s birthday so the tradition is to buy a cake. And, truth be told…the cake really isn’t that good. At some point, someone gets the guts to say something about it. Then you realize everyone hates the cake but was going through the motions because they thought everyone else liked it.
That’s the Abilene Paradox.
Birthday cakes are a pretty tame example. But you can see how this can translate when it comes to bigger decisions. The group makes a decision. A person doesn’t like it but goes along with it anyway. It turns out to be a bad decision. And the person says, “Me? I never liked the idea but since everyone else wanted to do it, so I went along.”
I don’t have to tell you the problems with this. After the decision is made, the group is faced with a problem and people are backing away under “Me? I never thought it was a good idea. But I was outnumbered, so no need to bring it up.” I can hear the bus wheels screeching as I’m typing this.
If you want to avoid a “never liked the idea, but…” response, consider creating a way to discuss matters and build consensus. A colleague of mine shared a consensus building straw poll that she really likes. Mad props to Kristin Arnold who developed it.
The test is simple – take a poll of the group using a 5L scale:
Loathe – Lament – Live – Like – Love
Give each participant a chance to rate their feelings about the decision:
They loathe (or hate) it.
They lament or will gripe about it at the bar afterward.
They can live with it.
They like it.
They really, really love it.
Once everyone has weighed in, ask yourself, what’s the goal? Does everyone need to love the decision? Maybe it’s fine for everyone to just “live” with the decision.
This process allows you to take a pulse on the group’s feelings. If the goal is for everyone to live with the decision, then you can keep discussing until you reach that goal. Or not – then you have to head off in a different direction. It also allows you to avoid those awkward moments when someone says, “Me? Never agreed with the decision.” Because everyone had to be comfortable with it (to a certain degree) in order for it to move forward.
Building a culture that allows for constructive feedback and questions will keep you from going to Abilene. And, I’m not talking about the lovely city in Texas here.
Image courtesy of Belinda Hankins Miller