The Abilene Paradox lurking in your projects

How a trip to a small town in Texas can be a good example of how the human being behavior could cause a nuclear accident? What if you have experience this same behaviour many times throughout your life and you haven’t even noticed it?

Consensus isn’t always a good thing.

A hot summer afternoon in Texas. A family plays a tedious domino match on their porch. Somebody suggests going to a nearby town called Abilene, 53 miles (4 hour drive), to have some snacks in a good restaurant. The car AC is broken. Nobody really wants to leave home under this weather. However everybody agreed to check it out. There they went, inside a car that felt more like an oven.

The trip back was quiet. Nobody said a thing even though the atmosphere was a bit tense.

Getting home after this traumatic experience under the hot texan sun, each of the family members decide to speak out:

“Honestly, I would rather have stayed home”

“I didn’t want to go outside ”

“I just went along with everybody else — I’m not really into weekend getaways”

“I didn’t want to go, just asked if anybody was up to something”

At the end of the day, nobody really wanted to go to Abilene. So why did they go?

The rocky way (and back) to Abilene.

On his book “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management” (1996), Jerry B. Harvey discusses, among other things, about this paradox that haunts companies and somehow goes unobserved. One of the family members mentioned on the story above is Jerry Harvey himself. He theorised about the Paradox based on this trip event and other situations of his professional life.

This issue is more common than we think: how many times did we witnessed on our workplace a proposal to which everybody agreed even though the same people knew that it wouldn’t work? Nobody wants to be the one who always says “no”, right? Thousands of decisions are taken everyday by groups of people wanting acceptance (for many reasons discussed a little further down) rather than pondering about the impact of the decision itself.

The paradox generally starts when everybody agrees about something even though nobody thinkgs it is a good idea. The lack of capacity to manage consensus is the root of the paradox, according to Harvey. Saying “yes” — the easy way — avoids conflicts in a short term even though this kind of reckless decision making could potentially create greater conflicts down the road (think about bankrupcy, disasters and fatalities, in the worst case scenario).

When we say “yes” we:

  • Avoid anxiety generated by decision-making
  • Escape from our own reality and responsabilities
  • Escape from the risks related to our decisions
  • Avoid situations where group rejection could occurr

The Abilene Paradox is part of the groupthink concept, where sociological theories suggest that human beings are naturally led to the choice made by its group, for a number of reasons we won’t talk about here.Society in general rejects those who decide/think differently from the mass.

The Chernobyl disaster could be somehow related to this behavior. A safety test on nuclear power plant reactor Chernobyl 4 was planned many times but never concluded, mainly because much of the specialist body knew the risks involved. The Kremlin knew the risks but wasn’t keen on showing that the Soviet Union had flawed reactors. What the rest of the world would think about the soviet power? The management of the nuclear power plant could not say no to the Kremlin as well— who wanted to be the one telling (for the nth time) that the test was posponed to the General Secretary of the Communist Party? Everybody knew the risks and the result couldn’t be any different.

Chernobyl 4 control room.

The Challenger space ship launch in 1986 by NASA and its subsequent accident was another example of the Abilene Paradox consequences. The engineering team had noticed that the o-rings used as sealings could not withstand the temperatures that the shuttle would be exposed to during the launch. However nobody opposed the decision when the day came even though all of the thirty one specialists sitting in the same room watching the disaster to happen knew it. This disaster killed seven of the most skilled astronauts the US had.

Space Shuttle Challenger launching in 1986.

So how can we avoid reaching that point where everybody says “Yes” when they should be thinking a little bit before and probably saying “No”?

As we saw through some examples, the Abilene Paradox could unfold into disasters and tragedies for an organization. To inhibit this kind of group behavior, some points can be taken into account in the workplace:

  • Every opinion counts: create a workplace where exchanging ideas and experiences be considered positive. Opinions should not be judged! On projects, the brainstorming stage is where this idea will shine. Constructing a probable causes diagram (Ishikawa) should be based on everyone’s idea with no strains.
  • Feedback: learn to be a good listener and let people talk. A clear feedback from the team and its members is key to the right direction of a project/company.
  • Discordance is natural and beneficial (with respect of course): versatility and multidisciplinary teams are important to develop value for discussions. Challenge the common sense, provoke discussions and thinking among the team — a holistic thinking is key to the success of your projects.

Some references:

Jerry B. Harvey. “The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management”. Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Chernobyl Nuclear Accident: https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

Chernobyl official site: https://chnpp.gov.ua/en/home

Case study developed by the Air Force on the Challenger accident: https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a202102.pdf

The Abilene Paradox and the Challenger: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-2000-12-22-0012220628-story.html

Data Scientist at TIVIT