Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Abilene Paradox

The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management

Author : Jerry B Harvey

One line description of the Abilene paradox can be summed up as “Agree in Public. Disagree in private”.

Let us have a look at the story based on which the paradox is named.

On a hot July Sunday afternoon (104 degrees) at Coleman, Texas, a family was happily playing cards. Things were going indeed fine until the eldest person proposed “let us go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria”. Jerry, the author of the book, seems to have thought “what? Abilene! 53 miles in dust and storm in a non-air-conditioned car” but his wife remarked, “Sounds like a good idea”. Then, one more chipped in “I haven’t been to Abilene for a long time”. With such a convergence of agreements, off they packed to Abilene. Jerry’s unarticulated fears became true. Heat was brutal and food was lousy. Nearly after 5 hours and 100+ miles all of them came back very frustrated. Finally, one person broke the silence saying “Well, I really did not enjoy the trip and actually I did not want to come but I came just to satisfy you all”. Next person joined in with a similar message and later it became obvious that none of them wanted to go but ended up going anyway. I may have summarized the story in a too un-dramatic form. But the point is clear – we have lots of trouble in managing agreements!

Jerry then gives us examples of organization dynamics where, in many meetings such things happen time and again. But then, paradoxes are paradoxes because they are based on logic and rationale that is different from what we understand or expect. I wish I could disagree with him, but, I have personally witnessed and sometimes participated in such paradoxes. “Tell the truth and shame the devil” is a lofty goal, but in real life, such an act seems to involve near exemplary courage. At least for me, I could not muster this every time and hence my edgy resonance finds its way in.

Jerry’s view of Watergate scandal and his version plus views of hire-n-fire in the organizations is bound to make you think deeply. He also takes up the concept of grace with captain Asoh’s story. At SFO, on 22nd November 1968, with 11 crew members and 96 passengers, he landed a DC-8 flight 2.5 miles before the runway and hence ended up landing at sea coast’s backwaters. He managed to land reasonably well and so no one was injured and the plane was nearly intact (some damage is inevitable since it landed on salty water). Shortly, he was summoned by National board of safety for investigation. He being Japanese, it is an inter country affair too. Lots of people camped there to witness the case of what otherwise was supposed to be a long drawn trail. Some lawyers even rented suites nearby. So when he was asked formally how it happened, his reply was “As you Americans say, Asoh messed up”. In a singular sentence whatever can be said was said - only details were left. The trail was over very soon. I must say Asoh-san left a deep impression on me.

Jerry’s view on academics is also worth pondering – right from kindergarten to college, cheating is defined as “giving or receiving aid to others”. It is odd that if you help or being helped, it is tantamount to cheating and thereby implicitly encourages selfishness. We seem to know a lot about “collaboration”, “cooperation” etc, but by training we are trained to be standalone persons.

This book is relatively a short one (156 Pages) and hence I don’t want to quote many episodes or examples from it that would rob the reader who may want to read it. Hence, I would like to recall an incident that happened in Gandhi’s family.

We live in a sugarcane plantation about 18 miles away from the city of Durban, South Africa. Our home is so far away in remote outlying villages that we had almost no neighbors. Therefore, I and both of my sisters were always excited to have the opportunity to be able to go downtown, just to visit friends or sometimes watch movies. One day by chance my father asked me to accompany him to town to attend a daylong conference -stupendous joy for me at that moment.

After reaching the conference hall, dad asked me to pick me back at 5pm which I gladly agreed. After completing the day’s tasks, I left the car for service and instead of waiting for the car to be repaired, I thought it will not hurt to go and see a movie and come back. But, I was late and ended up reaching the conference hall only by 6pm. Meanwhile, my dad has already checked with the service shop and learnt that I did not go there on time to pickup. Unaware of this, when dad asked me why I was late, I replied that, “Repair took more time” which was a lie. Dad unmoved by my response said, “there must something wrong in the way I have raised and educated you. You did not have the courage to speak to me honestly. Let me walk back all the way and contemplate”. He did walk all the way and I drove the car very slowly behind him crying most of the time. From then onwards, I never lied.

In the end, it boils down to creating an environment where people would have the courage to tell the truth. Creating such an environment is very hard and to sustain it - well no one has yet tried!

Now, let us briefly touch upon “vital lies”. It is a term coined by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. He means by that term, “a comforting story we tell ourselves in order to conceal or forget a more painful truth”.

So the goal would be avoiding vital lies to our own (internally) and tell the truth to others (externally).

Thanks a lot for reading this far.....