Business Analysts and the Abilene Paradox

We’ve all been there. You don’t agree at all with a decision being made, but you fear that you are in the minority – if not the only one – in disagreement. Instead of prolonging debate, and risking raising the ire of others in the group, you concede. Instead of expressing your true thoughts on the matter, you feign agreement without consideration for the future consequences of not speaking up.

A few months ago, while in a business analyst training course, I learned about an interesting phenomenon called the “Abilene Paradox.” The paradox was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey and is illustrated by the parable below that is supposedly based on a personal experience of his.

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. The wife says, “Sounds like a great idea.” The husband, 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. 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 husband says, “I wasn’t delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you.” The wife 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. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

Harvey, Jerry B. (Summer 1974). “The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management”. Organizational Dynamics .

There’s also a great video version of the parable that also includes the paradox in some business scenarios – you can look at a preview, here.

The heart of Harvey’s message, in my view, may be summed up in the following points:

  1. While the benefit of coming to decisions as a group is that more points of view will filter out the weakest options, groups sometimes reach incorrect decisions because of false consensus.
  2. People will go along with what they perceive to be “the crowd” even if, in reality, there is no “crowd.”
  3. People tend to have an impression – either warranted or unwarranted – that there will be repercussions to speaking out against ideas with which they don’t agree.
  4. If we acknowledge that the paradox exists, we can be more conscious of it, and strive to avoid it.

So, there’s the Abilene Paradox. Have you ever failed to express your opposing viewpoint when your thoughts that ran contrary to what you considered to be the popular opinion? I know I have. No one wants to be perceived as contrarian. What if no one speaks up and the results – which could have been averted – are disastrous?

There are lots of layers to this paradox. First, it is management’s job to foster an environment where people are comfortable expressing their views, and challenging the perceived status quo. Second, it is incumbent on the various role players within an organization to take a true ownership stake in the success of the company. This means having the courage to speak your mind, when appropriate. Third, when you do have courage and an environment that is friendly to free-flow of ideas and opinions, you have to be careful to take the paradox too far in the other direction. We all know people who look for every opportunity to disagree on every matter, no matter how minute. No one wants to be that guy.

So, how does all of this apply to the business analyst?

Because business analyst’s are facilitators of knowledge transfer, and need honest assessments from all stakeholders, we need to manage the way we elicit requirements and facilitate project meetings with the paradox in mind. Here are just a few ideas:

  1. If no one seems to be challenging ideas that come from the top, go ahead and play the devil’s advocate. As a BA, it is our job to ask questions and challenge assumptions to get to the true stakeholder need.
  2. If some participants in elicitation sessions are too quiet, or appear to be “yes man” prototypes, then schedule one-on-one sessions with those individuals. Even if all participants have read all about the Abilene Paradox, it will still be difficult for some to speak up.
  3. Get it right on the front-end. I am speaking specifically about projects, here. Sometimes a project’s business sponsor will want to implement a simple solution – and think they need to try to solve world hunger while he/she is at it. In many cases, no one will speak up and tell the sponsor otherwise. If you have the opportunity to work with the sponsor during the project’s inception, help them make sure that the business case is solid. Remind them that the goal is to address specific business needs (that you will help them identify) – and not world hunger. The quicker these discussions are held, the better.

Now, I am sure there are lots of other good ideas, but as I look up I remind myself that I set out this evening to write a quick blog post, not a book. What are your thoughts on the Abilene Paradox? Have you seen its effects? What are some other ways of averting the paradox? As always, I’ll look forward to your comments.

In case you’re interested, here are some additional links on the Abilene Paradox:

About the Author

Jonathan Babcock is a management and IT consultant with expertise in business analysis, process optimization and solution delivery methodology. Practical Analyst is his outlet for sharing what he's learned, and for interacting with solution delivery professionals across the globe.

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13 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. You make great points. I never heard of this paradox before, but it explains many things. Often unrealistic schedules are a consequence of this paradox, but often times they are right to withold objections.

    There are often consequences to pointing out to the emperors that they have no clothes. Too often project deliveries are set based on desires and optimism supported by the software community’s lack of support for estimates based on metrics.

    If we had some facts supported by numbers for software estimates, there would be less ability to ignore the obvious, and thus permit optimism and desires to rule decisions. I discuss this some in my essay titled, Reflection: Unrealistic Schedules.

    I would like to contact you via email, but I was unable to find an email address for you on this site. Can you send me an email, so I can correspond with you?

  2. Great article – just ran into an example of this exact phenomenon when reviewing a use case today. Wrote about it in my linked article (above).

    Thanks – I would have been much more expressive (and persuasive) in my feedback today, had I already read the Abilene story.

  3. This is a great way to describe a real problem. The thing is, while it feels as though this should be easy to solve by just asking the right questions, in practice it isn’t so simple.

    In the outside-in approach to software development, John Sweitzer and I describe techniques that specifically address the Abilene Paradox (although we don’t use that colorful name for it!).

    We start with understanding WHO your project’s stakeholders really are. That tells you whose requirements to even consider. Then we suggest ways to prioritize them, using a tool we call the Stakeholder Goals Map.

    This approach also allows us to deal with changes over the course of a project: changing requirements (yes that happens!) and changing constraints (like budgets). Read more at http://outside-in-thinking.com/?p=50

  4. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comments, gentlemen.

    The paradox is definitely an interesting – and real – phenomenon. Just having learned the little I have about it, and the dangers of groupthink have helped me adjust my comportment and the way I manage meetings.

    Scott, I appreciated (as always) the insights in your related post.

    Carl, I’ll definitely check out your site as well.

  5. The Abilene Pradox does explain a real issue. However, the application may not be so simple as it seems. The paradox assumes that all members of the group have an equal level of absolute authority and cannot exercise absolute authority over any other memeber of the group. In addition, no member of the group can impose absolute penalties of the remainder of the group.

    For instance, when a re-organization occurs, the management who created the reorganization have absolute authority and can impose absolute penailties upon the rest of those affected. Although the entire group may feel the reorganization incorrect, they have no power to change the direction, even when all group members agree. Management’s ability to place people within the new organization, and fire or demote those who disagree, negate the applicability of the Abilene Paradox. In cases where a member of the group is able, or is perceived as able, to exercise absolute authority over the group, the Paradox no more applies than it would in a hostage situation.

    For the analyst, it is important to identify power brokers within a group, and determine whether the power they can exercise is absolute. In such case, those with absolute power will drive the group decision, regadless of the majority opinion of the group.

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