Monday, September 1, 2008

Are We Going To Abilene?

Everyone needs cool friends. Cool friends is Tom Peters' term, and one can get lost investigating his list of cool friends. Were I to have a list like he does! I, however, was meeting with one of my cool friends the other day and, as often happens, he introduced just what I needed to further my thinking on my thought project du jour. I have been thinking a lot about meeting culture: if it is good or bad, effective or wasteful, necessary or ancillary.

Here is what my cool friend offered me: The Abilene Paradox. Here is the story that it comes from:

On a hot afternoon visiting in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. His daughter says, "Sounds like a great idea." His son-in-law, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time."

The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.

One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it." The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The son-in-law says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The daughter says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored. The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted.

I didn't know its name, but I recognized this behavior from the work I have been doing around meetings. Why do we allow the need for a harmonious group to trump the need to make sound, full, focused decisions? The answer is: because we are human. So, the strategy is to learn to recognize this tendency or need in our meetings and groups, and to learn to guard against it so that better decisions that further the mission of the organization are derived.

Some questions to use as a start:

Do we value honesty and truthfulness?
Are we inclusive of multiple perspectives?
Do we attach ideas and perspectives to their owners in an unhealthy way? (A version of Kill the Messgenger)
Are we comfortable and skilled in the analytical process of making a full decision?
Are we afraid of new information, new input, and new ideas because of where they might lead us?
What is not being talked about or said, and why?
Do we understand and strive to do what it right for the organization or what is comfortable for our self?
What if we disagree? What does that tell us?
What can the leader do without full, open, honest input?
How can the leader stop us before we go to Abilene?

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