The Abiline Paradox


Ever heard of the Abilene Paradox? Well if you have you may like to read about this example in action. If not, it is never too late.

Some time ago I was in a meeting in which we were trying to decide which particular piece of hardware we should choose for our business. Whichever we chose, we would need at least 25 of them, so the right decision was important. The boss chose one and everyone else fell into line except one trouble maker – me! I thought the other one was more appropriate, but as I appeared to be the only one, I gave my reasoning but agreed with the majority. After all, the others did know more about the business than I did.

Later, in a conversation with the salesperson offering the hardware, he made an interesting comment. He said everyone appeared to simply agree with the boss, who was very clear in what he wanted, but not without reasoning. My immediate reaction was – that is the Abilene Paradox!

The salesman had never heard of it, so I explained what it was about, as I will do for you. It is one of the many interesting theories of group decision making and can lead to the wrong decision, especially in groups with a dominant personality (I hasten to add that in the case above I am not at all sure the choice made was wrong – both options were excellent).

The story goes that someone by the name of Jerry Harvey was visiting a town in Texas with some friends or family. Sitting on the porch after lunch one person in the group suggested driving to Abilene for dinner. Someone else agreed, and soon they all agreed to go. Driving 53 miles down a dusty road in hot conditions they ‘enjoyed’ a dreadful meal and drove back.

Back on the porch the conversation got back to the dinner, somebody concluded the trip had been a waste of time. Someone else said they had only agreed to go because the first person wanted to go. It quickly became clear that nobody really wanted to drive to Abilene, but each individual had said they has agreed simply not to disappoint someone else. Ah well, I am sure there are people who love Abilene.

What does this mean for Enterprise Britain? It means that if we are genuinely seeking opinions of other people in a group we need to make sure we do not simply get the answer they think we want to hear. If we do not care about their opinion, don’t ask and live with the consequences of soloist decision making.

It also means we have to encourage people around us to speak their minds. I call it autocratic democracy – I value opinions and especially the reasoning behind them, but ultimately, if I am in charge I feel free to make the final decision – and live with the consequences. Cheers Abilene – one day I will look you up!

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