Heading to Abilene?

So I’m a huge fan of a good story.  And I also love thinking about how decisions get made in organizations.  Put the two together and I’m hooked; you had me at hello – or in the case of the Abilene Paradox, you had me at “hey, y’all.”

For those of you who don’t know the Abilene Paradox, it’s a management parable about a family in a dusty Texas town that ends up traveling fifty miles to Abilene for dinner because nobody spoke out against taking a trip that none of them had wanted to take, not even the person who had halfheartedly suggested they go to Abilene!

It’s an interesting story because businessfolk are constantly making group decisions.  And in a rush to make choices, these founders, GPs, LPs,CEOs, or whatever often seek to avoid the discord that can lengthen or even derail the decision-making process.  But in seeking to tamp down possible conflict, these choice-makers typically fall victim to the ever-lurking, insidious evil of groupthink. 

And over the course of a year, a team can make hundreds of decisions.  Since strategy is an integrated set of informed choices that lead to timely action, decisions build on themselves and all of a sudden the failure to speak up in even the smallest of debates can have repercussions that resonate over time.

In a tough economy the cost of poor choices is higher, since capital is scarcer and sand slips inexorably through the hourglass.  Precisely at the time when people should be emboldened to speak up, the opposite seems true.  The pendulum swings from greed to fear and people are motivated by trepidation, insecurity, timidness.  Upward feedback can take on a rosier glow than usual.  There’s an old Japanese proverb that seems to encapsulate people’s fear during tough times: “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets hammered down.” 

You can also get the blowhards in downturns: the “often wrong, but never in doubt” crowd.  On the one hand, I love those cats.  They get stuff done and they're proud of it!  On the other hand, maybe Yeats was describing them when he said, “the best lack all conviction / while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

But hey, it’s all self-preservation; people are hard-wired by millenia of evolution and decades of experience to act in certain ways in times of stress.  I can dig that.  Robust debate and intellectual honesty are actually pretty complicated and counter-intuitive.  Sometimes, it’s just easier to go along and get along.

So here’s my Christmas wish: forget the Wii Fit; all I want from Santa this year is for my GPs and portfolio company management teams to crank up the frankness a bit for 2009.  You guys are a pretty honest bunch to start with, no doubt, but maybe we all can make a New Year’s resolution of going out on a limb a bit more, while also cutting everyone else a little extra slack.  The quality of your debates and decision process may well prove to be the difference between an unwanted dinner date in Abilene and an invitation to ring a bell at 11 Wall Street.

3 thoughts on “Heading to Abilene?

  1. Well of course they had a miserable time… they should have gone to Harold’s BBQ instead of to a cafeteria.


  2. That’s how you define “strategy”? Where did you learn your craft?
    Strategy is not about timely action. It’s about winning and losing. For every winner, there’s a loser. The pie may grow, but I’ll take as much of the growing pie as I can. Right from your mouth.


  3. “For every winner, there’s a loser” requires an expansive definition of winning and losing. Otherwise, economic growth should equal zero, or all economic gains in history should have gone to the same “winners.”
    Here’s an interesting piece from McKinsey about strategy in a structural break. This downturn requires new strategies to accommodate these new conditions. We will have winners and losers emerge from this downturn, but their ratio won’t be 1:1.
    Anyway, I dig your blog.


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