I completed my college studies at Abilene Christian University which is located in Abilene, Texas. I really like Abilene and look forward to my class reunions. However; for marketing organizations, Abilene is to be avoided when mentioned in the context of the “Abilene Paradox.”
The Abilene Paradox is brought to life in a story told by Professor Jerry B. Harvey of a family decision gone wrong. On a hot west Texas day, Jerry, his wife and parent-in-laws piled into a car without air conditioning and drove from their small hometown of Coleman, Texas to Abilene (about 60 miles one way) to have dinner at a cafeteria. At 104 degrees the heat was oppressive; and as it turns out the food was lousy. But no one dared to speak in those terms until they returned home four hours later. Finally, Jerry’s mother-in-law broke the silence by complaining about the trip. Then everyone chimed in with their main issue … as it turns out, no one really wanted to go in the first place. Eventually, they all blamed Jerry’s father-in-law for suggesting the outing. Even Jerry’s father-in-law had really wanted to stay home. He only suggested the idea because he thought everyone might get bored staying at home. You have to wonder why someone didn’t speak up and voice their true feelings before they piled into the car.
To Harvey, whenever a group is about to do the wrong things, despite knowing it is the wrong thing, it is a group “on the road to Abilene.” In fact, this form of groupthink actually has to do with the mismanagement of agreement, as opposed to the management of disagreement.
Imagine a task force of your best people making an ill-fated decision. You know from talking with each person alone that each and every one of them thinks it’s the wrong direction to go. When the group votes, however, they choose to pile into the Abilene bound car! This actually describes a group in agreement, not in conflict. The problem is they all agree privately (the real data tells me that we shouldn’t be doing this!) about the true state of affairs. However; they don’t communicate their true thoughts and understandings to one another. Then publicly, in the presence of each other, they all deny their true thoughts and set in motion their ill-fated journey.
If your leadership style demands total organizational agreement you may end up with a marketing strategy that contains roads to Abilene. Those organizations often take actions in contradiction to the data they have for dealing with specific problems, and as a result they find their situation worsening. Better to foster an environment that allows for a process to squarely, openly and directly plan your marketing strategy.
By the way, if you really do find yourself in Abilene and are looking for a good place to eat, I recommend Joe Allen’s Pit Bar-B-Que!