It was a typical July afternoon in the little town of Coleman, Texas. A hot wind from the Panhandle was blowing fine-grained Texas topsoil right through my in-law's house while my wife and I, along with her parents, indulged in what, for Coleman, was a rip-roaring afternoon of entertainment. >> Domino. >> Just my luck to get a son in-law that can beat me at Dominoes. >> Since those days back in Coleman, I've gone on to study people and how they interact in all kinds of organizations. But the more I learn about what is now termed organizational dynamics, the more I'm reminded of one particular hot summer afternoon. >> Five. >> Fifteen. It's getting on to 4 o'clock. What do you want to do about supper? >> Well, what do you all say we get in the car and go to Abilene, have supper at the café? >> Well, that sounds like a good idea. I'd like to go. How about you, Jerry? >> How far is it to Abilene? >> 53 miles. >> You got the air conditioning fixed in that Buick yet? >> Nope. >> Yeah, well, sounds like a good idea to me, but I don't want to go unless your momma wants to go. >> Well, of course I want to go! You don't think I want to stay here and eat leftovers out of the icebox, do you? >> And so, we all piled into the furnace and headed off for Abilene. After a supper that could've provided a first-rate testimonial for antacid, some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman. For a long while, there was absolute, teetotal silence. >> It was a great trip, wasn't it? >> And then, the floodgates were opened. >> Well, to tell you the truth, I'd rather have stayed right here, if only y'all hadn't pressured me to go along. >> What do you mean "y'all"? I didn't want to go. I only went along to satisfy the rest of you. You're the culprits. >> Don't call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Momma are the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable. >> Hey, I didn't want to go to Abilene to begin with. I was just making conversation. How'd I know that y'all would take me up on it and ruin my whole day? >> I can't believe we went to Abilene when nobody wanted to go. >> Now, if you're wondering if our family ever resolved our conflict, the answer is no, because strange as it may seem, we never really were in conflict. >> You didn't think I wanted to go, did you? >> But, why did you suggest that we go to Abilene in the first place? >> I was just testing the waters. Y'all took me serious— ruined a perfectly good Sunday afternoon. >> I later came to call it the "Abilene Paradox," when groups of people take actions in contradiction to what they, as individuals, really want and end up defeating the very purposes they set out to achieve. In fact, the Abilene Paradox says that the inability to manage agreement, rather than conflict, is one of the most urgent issues facing our organizations, then and now. >> I'm sorry to have kept you waiting. >> Some years later, I was reminded of the Abilene Paradox when I got hired as a part-time consultant for an intriguing assignment. >> Production is on a downturn, and our profit picture's in, um, transition. None of our staff know what to do about it— that's why we asked you here. You have any questions? >> Yeah, what's this "Project X"? >> An albatross. The guys down in R&D think they can turn peanut oil into jet fuel. Don't get me wrong— it's a great idea on paper, but between you and me, it'll never fly. >> Why not? >> The technology just isn't there yet. >> Have you considered some kind of formal reassessment of the viability of the project? >> Oh, not me! Oh, the stockholders love it— big spread in the Wall Street Journal. Besides, I have a vice president who's willing to stake her entire reputation on the success of this project. >> Well, is she aware of your reservations? >> Are you kidding? I've got an ulcer myself over this. You think I want to give her one? >> So how do you handle this? >> Every few days, I go over to her office and say things like, "Hang in there! Victory or death! Stiff upper lip!" Stuff like that. Isn't that what a president's supposed to do? >> I decided to find out what the VP thought about Project X. >> Peanut oil into jet fuel— you got to be kidding. No, Project X is a dead-end street. >> I don't get it. If you know that, why not stop it? >> You try to stop it when the President's in your office every few days, telling you to "Hang in there! Victory or death! Stiff upper lip!" >> So why don't you tell him you think it's a dead end? >> Not me. That project is a sacred cow. Anyway, who knows? Maybe those people down in R&D can pull a rabbit out of the hat. Believe me, it wouldn't be the first time. >> Like the president before her, the VP strongly advised me to look elsewhere for the cause of ACME's problems, but by the time I got around to interviewing the R&D director, it was clear that there was just no ignoring Project X. >> Did you ever try to turn peanut oil into jet fuel? Craziest thing I ever heard. >> But the VP said that your reports— >> Oh, I write those reports ambiguously enough so that the board can interpret them in any way they please. In fact, I sort of slant them to the positive side, given how committed the brass are to the project. >> But, if the project is unworkable, why don't you tell them? >> See the woman at that workstation? >> It, it's empty. >> Exactly. Rumor has it she's the last one who criticized Project X. Look, I'm middle-aged. I got two kids in college. I got alimony payments. There's no job market for a guy with my skills. >> I should've seen it then. The culprit wasn't Project X. Everyone believed privately that the project was doomed to failure, but they were simply unable or unwilling to share that belief with each other. They were on a trip to Abilene when nobody wanted to go. A few years later, I discovered that the Abilene Paradox applies not only to corporations but also to couples. >> Hello, Professor Harvey. >> Why do you look so down, Sue? >> You'd be down, too, if you were marrying George on Saturday. >> But George is a great guy. >> Sure he is, but I don't love him. I don't even like him. In fact, I can't even stand him! >> Then why in the world are you getting married? >> He gave me an engagement ring. >> If you don't love him, don't you think you ought to give it back? >> I can't do that. Momma loves him, and, and she has a heart condition, and if I backed out now she'd probably have a heart attack. Oh, and besides, there's a room full of presents, and the bridesmaid, she has her dress. >> But, how did all this happen? >> Well, you got me. I gave Sue a ring. Now, I'm marrying a girl I don't even love. >> Well, if you don't love her, don't you think you ought to ask for the ring back? >> No, I can't do that. I'd be a laughing stock. Well, besides, her momma thinks the world of me, and then, there's all the presents. I ain't all that good looking. I may not get another chance if— >> The crazy thing was, Sue and George were in total agreement about their impending marriage, but they still seemed determined to spend a lifetime together on the road to Abilene. Pretty absurd, isn't it? People taking actions in direct contradiction to what they really think is best, and as a result, compounding their problems rather than solving them. The big question is, why? To answer that, we're going to need to explore the psychological principles from which the Abilene Paradox draws its enormous power. >> To be, or not to be, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or by opposing end them. >> First of all, there's action anxiety, which is epitomized by perhaps the most famous dramatic character of all time: Shakespeare's Hamlet. >> For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come... Thus, conscience doth make cowards of us all. >> To maintain my integrity or to compromise it, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to risk managing a doomed research project... >> When we are anxious about what action to choose, even though, unlike Hamlet, we may have a perfectly sensible choice in mind, we may simply refuse to act at all. >> Thus, fear of unemployment doth make cowards of us all. >> Well, answer this, Sue. What'll happen if you call it off? >> Second, we often find ourselves conjuring up negative fantasies of the disaster we're certain will occur if we actually do what we think we should. >> You know what'll happen if I call off this wedding. >> No, I don't. Tell me. >> Momma? I don't know how to tell you this, but George and I—we're not gonna get married. >> Such negative fantasies serve an important function. They give us an iron-clad excuse for inaction when what is really called for is action. But can we ever really play it safe? The answer is no, we can't. Mommas do sometimes suffer heart attacks, and R&D directors do sometimes lose their jobs. >> For your lack of support for Project X, you're fired. Effective immediately. Clean out your desk, and turn in your keys. >> Excuse me, Sir? What did you say? >> I said, "I'm glad we're all fired up about Project X." >> Oh, right, right. Absolutely. >> Real risk is a condition of human existence. It's one of life's givens. All of our actions have the potential of a negative outcome. By attempting to avoid risk, all we're really doing is choosing to take a trip to Abilene instead— a choice that often has far greater risk. >> Then, you agree we shouldn't divert any of the Project X funding into other smaller projects? >> Well, no. It would dissipate our focus, delaying a possible breakthrough. >> Well, I feel that way, too. I, um, think that we should push on. We're close now. All those in favor of continuing Project X? >> But what is it we're really risking that makes us so fearful? Embarrassment, being ostracized, being branded a non-team player. In short, we fear separation. But therein lies a paradox within a paradox, because the more unwilling we are to risk being ostracized, the more likely we are to make a choice that will inevitably lead to the separation we fear. >> Can you believe it? We're in the Wall Street Journal again. >> Great! They spell our names right this time? >> Yes, unfortunately. >> Please, be seated. We are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in the immutable bonds of holy matrimony. >> In a sense, we actually confuse fantasy and reality in our minds. What we imagine will go wrong if we say what's in our hearts becomes more real to us than the far more likely disaster that will result from going along with the crowd. >> Our operating costs are sucking this entire company down. We failed to meet payroll. >> One of the most foolproof signs of a trip to Abilene is the assignment of blame, identifying a scapegoat. >> Now, I want to know who's responsible. >> Don't look at me. I was relying on the progress reports out of R&D. >> But assigning blame is not just wasteful—it's irrelevant because it perpetuates the illusion that conflict is the problem, when everyone is actually in unanimous agreement. >> Wait a minute! You're not laying this off on me. >> Want to bet? You're on probation. I'm removing you from all projects immediately. I'm turning over R&D to the Vice President until further notice. >> Consider carefully there— >> Nothing can be accomplished between people without an agreement, voiced or not, and that includes a trip to Abilene. >> If there's anyone present who can show reason why these two should not be joined in eternal bonds of matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace. >> In a sense, all passengers on the Abilene Express are in collusion with one another, and therefore, are all equally to blame. >> Hi. >> Hello. >> You know, I was wondering about our meeting, and, um, have you ever thought that maybe it's Project X that's causing the drain in R&D? >> No. >> Of course, it's tempting to want to assign blame to the leader. >> Besides, the boss is so gung ho. Well, he wouldn't cancel it even if it was. >> No. You're right—he wouldn't. >> However, blaming the leader is really just another form of collusion. In fact, all members are equally responsible for team action or inaction. >> Even if, say, you and I tried to cancel it, he wouldn't let us. >> No. You're right. He wouldn't. >> More important, by the time a group reaches this point, all its members are victims. So, now that we understand how we get on the road to Abilene, isn't there some way we can avoid such wasteful and destructive excursions? The answer is yes. First of all, each of us has to assess the real risk of taking action, as well as the risk of taking no action at all. >> Do you, George, take this woman, Sue, to be your lawfully wedded wife… >> Second, each of us has a choice: remain silent or own up to our own beliefs and feelings without attributing beliefs and feelings to others. >> …for as long as you both shall live? >> I do. >> And do you, Sue, take this man, George, to be your lawfully wedded husband? To have and to hold, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as you both shall live? >> I don't know about you, George, but I, I don't really want to get married. >> You don't? >> No, George. I'm sorry. >> Sorry? >> He was never really right for my Sue. >> Now, we've cut back on technicians, clerical, utilities; I've scrapped nonessentials. >> Third, what is often required is confrontation in a group setting—not with new information or arguments, but with what the group has already silently agreed upon. >> Now, I did get one anonymous suggestion, which was "Cancel Project X." >> Actually, that was me. Hear me out. >> I know I've sung its praises as much as anybody, but I, I honestly don't believe Project X will work. I, I think it's a bottomless pit, and nothing's going to come out of it. >> You know, I think terminating this project could significantly enhance our financial profile. We'd have a chance—just a chance—of recouping first quarter losses. >> Do you realize what you're saying? >> Yes I do. I only wish I'd had the nerve to suggest it earlier. This project has been ill-advised from the start. It may even bankrupt us. >> Do you mean that you and I and the rest of us have been dragging along a research project that none of us thought would work? >> It's crazy. >> I don't know why we did it. >> Well, neither do I. Alright, let's cancel this blasted project. >> The Abilene Paradox. You wouldn't think folks could make something so simple as being in agreement such a problem, but paradoxes are usually such because they're based on a logic different from what we understand or expect. If we can break that logic, and also have the courage of our convictions, our teams can grow and flourish.