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.....





NSM said...

An interesting one.
Suggest watching the movie "ek rukha hua faisla" which was a version of "12 men jury"

NSM said...

The movie is "12 angry men"

Kiran said...

Nice one Madhu-san.

Ramesh N Raghavan said...

Madhu-san, Nice post, I can see this happening all the time in organizations, especially organizations which value conformance more than anything else. And in many cases no one wants to be the lone person in dissonance, which requires a lot of courage and conviction. Many organizational initiatives languish because of this and everyone goes through the motion of trying to do something about it without any passion and it eventually shows in the results such initiatives produce. The irony is that when times are tough, you really need a lot of debate before any decision is taken, but that is when most people are scared to appear non-cooperative (which is often the branding one gets for questioning any proposal or decision) choose to be quiet and appear more than eager to cooperate with probably a poor proposal ;)
Should probably read the book again to refresh myself..
Best Regards,
N.R. Ramesh.

P.Varadarajan said...

Madhu, all of us come across this phenomenon frequently in our personal and professional lives. I didnt realise
they have given this a name!!

I have seen a couple of variants. In professional circumstances, very often, you are pitchforked suddenly into
situations wherein someone significantly important in the hierarchy (it does not matter junior or senior) comes out
with something, which you may not agree entirely with. I have found an effective way of dealing with this i.e. a very
neutral statement like `looks good, but we need to look at all aspects before arriving at a conclusion or worth pursuing
with greater analysis'. That neither
gives scope for the suggester to complain nor binds you to that position. Diplomatic, if you will. Even if this was
motivated by negative vibes about the suggestion, you do everything offline to put it off, rather than agree or disagree
with the person in public, especially if there has been no prior discussion or notice. I am sure almost everyone
resorts to this frequently.

Another situation, but in personal life, I have faced repeatedly is the desire not to be seen as disagreeing with elders
in public - an affliction children do not have nowadays - especially if the matter is serious enough. Actually, even if the
elder in question is making an erroneous statement and you were asked directly to comment, you shifted from one leg
to another uncomfortably, grunted something which meant neither this nor that and let the moment pass. Basically,
you maintained silence in some way. Later on, in private, you could talk to the elder and point out the problem and
take the consequences personally, whatever the outcome.
This probably was prompted by the tricky situation my father would place me sometimes.....if one was silent, he would
say `if you are going to be like a cow and not express your honest opinion, whatever the circs and whoever is advocating
anything, then what is the use of education and open upbringing', despite knowing the fact that I was being neutral out of respect and the
desire to avoid confrontation in public. If one were to express an opinion, indeed, he might turn around and say `so
you have grown up to be so big that you want to contradict me in public!!'. So, it is a no-win situation in public, but would
be manageable in private, despite being called a cow!!

But, in a matter like a dinner, unless it is something you detest, whats the big deal...flow with the team!


Sundar said...

I have a mildly amusing story in reverse along these lines. When I was a senior during my ugrad years, I had 3 other roommates in the hostel. Our hostel and engg college complex was right next to the city train station. Over the years we, the roomies, had come to know each others' families a bit. One day one roomie's parents traveling to their hometown in train were crossing our city. Since the train would stop in the station for 15 mins, my friend was heading to the station to see his parents briefly. Since we three also knew his parents, the three of us thought it would be fun for all of us to go meet/greet them. But the three of us didn't want to push ourselves in too strongly lest we endup invading into their 15 mins of family time. While our friend, though would have liked us to join him, didn't want to pull us too hard lest we are forced to say yes to be polite and go along while being totally not interested/bored. :-) So, he went alone. Later on we were discussing it to realize all 4 of us would have gone had there been an open discussion earlier. :-)

Nimmy said...

Fascinating, as always. I imagine I am somewhat aware of many books worth being read but you surprise me often. :-)

I hadn't heard about this book until now. I think I've come across the Abeline paradox before but it seems like a long time ago. A very interesting phenomenon indeed, especially in the context of KM. Another point you've dwelt upon could also be associated with KM and collaboration - and that is the education system and it's focus on individual performance rather than assisted performance. Thought-provoking!

The story from Gandhi's grandson is something I've come across many a time.

Looks like the book is a collation of various unusual phenomena in business/management? My Flipkart wishlist will soon groan under its weight!

Thirukumaran T said...

Hi Madhu,
எண்ணித் துணிக கருமம் துணிந்தபின்
எண்ணுவம் என்பது இழுக்கு

வாய்மை எனப்படுவது யாதெனின் யாதொன்றும்
தீமை இலாத சொலல்