By Todd Ballowe Published on 07-08-09
How to Avoid Bad Decisions and Why Not to Go to Abilene

Has your team ever come up with an idea or a project that no one agreed would work, and yet you still went ahead with it? Even though teams are needed for managing projects too big for one person, and even though the adage “two heads are better than one” usually holds up, there is a danger in group decision making that need to be avoided if you don’t want to fall in the trap called the Abilene Paradox.

We all know that one person rarely has the only, or complete perspective on the pros and cons of a decision- especially a large one like choosing a project for an entire team or department, or even choosing the strategic or tactical direction of an entire company. Individuals can be hindered by selective perception, excessive self-interest, limited attention, limited knowledge or limited time. For this reason, many important decisions are made by groups.

Who wants to  go to Abilene: the story of a trip no one wanted to take

The Abilene Paradox is simple. It’s explained using the parable of a family of four in Texas who is sitting around, content, playing checkers. When the father asks who wants to go to Abilene for dinner, everyone eventually agrees, even though they all know the hour long ride will be miserable and the food won’t be worth it. Upon returning from the dreaded trip, everyone begins to argue. The wife never wanted to go but agreed to because she thought the father wanted to. The daughter and her husband both agreed to go as well, yet neither wanted to go. It turns out, that the father didn’t want to either; he only suggested it because he assumed they were all bored.

And thus, you have a trip no one wanted to take, yet they all agreed to. In organizations, this manifests quite frequently in projects that no one takes responsibility for and are doomed from the start, yet somehow get the green light. How do you make sure that the Abilene Paradox doesn’t doom your next decision?

How to Identify the Paradox

Over at the OnStrategy blog, we developed a couple posts. The first one lists the signs you need to look for if you want to avoid the paradox.

  • Members exhibit different opinions in the group as opposed to one on one
  • Members are discouraged to dissent, often seen as lack of commitment
  • Members seem frustrated or resentful towards management and other team members
  • Members avoid responsibility or even attempt to blame others
  • Members exhibit a lack of trust
  • All decisions require unanimous agreement
  • Very little dissent from group opinion is observed

For more  detail on how to identify the paradox, see our post.

How to avoid the Paradox

So you know how to identify the paradox in action, but what you really want to know is how to make sure it never pops up. If only there was some way to keep it from happening! Well, you’re in luck, because we’ve compiled a list for avoiding it too.

  • Identify Groupthink signals within your organization.
  • Make room for disagreement
  • Avoid language that plays on our tendency to agree with groups
  • Don’t use “rule by committee” where everyone must agree
  • Re-configure groups
  • Create avenues for staff to voice their opinion

Want more detail? You guessed it- hit up the second blog post. We’ve got a lot more room to add detail. Also, if you want, you can add your own opinions or ideas for stomping out the Abilene Paradox and GroupThink.

It’s our sincere hope that you can avoid heading down the road to Abilene- not that we have anything against the actual city, though! (Texas, we love you too.)

Best of luck strategizing and moving your team towards success!