The Bus to Abilene is a paradox, also known as The Abilene Paradox.
This is when a group makes a collective decision that is counter to the preference of most or all of the individuals that make up the group.
It is generally caused by a lack of group communication, where individuals feel their preference goes against the will of the majority, and so they do not raise any objections. Sometimes, they may even fake support for a decision they do not really want. This can be especially true for junior members in a group that includes more senior individuals in terms of age or hierarchy.
This paradox was discovered by Jerry B. Harvey, a management expert who wrote an article in 1974 called “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement”.
Harvey gives a simple anecdote to explain the paradox:
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 50-mile (80-km)] trip to [Abilene 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 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 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.
Sometimes The Abilene Paradox is confused with groupthink, but they are actually quite different. When there is groupthink, everyone in the group will genuinely agree with the decisions that have been reached. The issue is that they cannot seem to think in a different way from the rest of the group. In the Abilene Paradox, individuals are thinking differently, but something is causing them not to speak out.
Combating the Paradox.
Every time I read about one of these types of concepts, my mind often goes to potential solutions to combat or avoid them altogether.
How can we ensure that we do not all get on the Bus to Abilene?
Well, the key thing is actually to be aware of this paradox and to be comfortable raising it at opportune times as a sanity check, to ensure that others are comfortable raising any disagreements before a decision is made.
This is similar to a concept employed in Japanese manufacturing called The Andon Cord — which is a pull cord or button that allows any employee to stop the entire production line if they detect a problem.
In the short term, this obviously causes problems as the production is stopped and there are likely to be delayed. But, in the long term, this ensures that production issues are fixed quickly, and it enables a culture of excellence, which reduces the number of future issues.