Here’s the scenario.
You call a meeting to discuss a project. You gain full agreement from everyone on how you’re going to proceed. You adjourn the meeting feeling good about having been successful at getting everyone “on side“. And then you hear people on their way out of the room saying something like, “I’m really not sure this will work, but everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea so I went along”?
Ever happen to you?
Believe it or not, this particular frustration actually has a name. It’s called The Abilene Paradox
The Abilene Paradox was introduced by Jerry B. Harvey. It is essentially a story that demonstrates what can happen if we are not candid in sharing our views and opinions. Here’s the quick version:
Four people are sitting comfortably on the porch of their home in Coleman, Texas. One suddenly suggests that they take a trip to Abilene (which is about fifty miles north), for dinner. A second one considers that the trip will be long and hot but doesn’t want to be the one to pour cold water on the idea and so agrees. A third simply says that it sounds like a great idea and when doubt is cast upon the willingness of the fourth person to go, this person responds indignantly with “of course I want to go!”
And so they pile into the car. It is a hot and dusty trip. When they arrive at the restaurant in Abilene, they order and eat a very mediocre meal after which they pile into the car again for the long and hot trip home.
When they arrive home, they are all exhausted. One admits that she would rather have stayed home. This surprises the second one who confesses that the only reason he suggested it was because he thought the rest of the group might otherwise be bored. And, as the truth began to unfurl they learned that the trip they had just taken was one that no one really wanted take.
Sounds pretty implausible doesn’t it? But it happens.
So, when you are sitting in a meeting with a bunch of other people, determining what course of action to take, what can you do to make sure that you’re getting the benefit of authentic views and opinions?
Here are some of my thoughts about that:
- You can conduct meetings on the principle that “nobody gets to be wrong”.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to agree with everything everyone says. It only means that if someone has something to say, they can feel confident that whatever it is, will not be instantly discounted or in any way disparaged.
- You can appoint someone who is willing to be “devil’s Advocate” for the meeting.
The role of the devil’s advocate is to purposely bring up issues that might be at odds with the popular trend. Often these are things that some people are thinking anyway but are reticent to bring out.
- You can share the “Abilene Paradox” anecdote with meeting participants before a meeting actually starts. This, in addition to establishing other operating principles for the time participants are together, makes for an environment where people can feel comfortable speaking their minds.
- In addition to the “devil’s Advocate”, you can include the “voices” of the client, the employee and the shareholder. This often gives the propositions being tabled, a multi-dimensional perspective that ensures that all parties are heard from and the chances of “going to Abilene” are negligible.
The Abiliene Paradox points out to me that it is just as important to manage agreement as it is to manage disagreement.
What do you think?