We were sitting around playing cards. It was hot, almost 45 degrees Celsius. There was me and my wife Diana and Diana’s sister Debbie and her husband Steve. There was almost no wind outside and the air was shimmering like a mirage, the tar on the road in front, was shiny at the edges, it was beginning to melt and the dogs were walking in slow motion dogs as though sticking to the sidewalk. The ceiling fan in the in semi dark room living room pushed the hot air around greasy like molasses. We were visiting Debbie and Steve for the first time in several years and they were trying to make sure we had a good time.
After a card game in which Debbie and I had won, Steve said, “why don’t we go to Abilene, it won’t take us much more than an hour to get there and we can enjoy the mall and have an early dinner there at one of the restaurants”. I didn’t much feel like going anywhere; I was enjoying the cards and the lazy
Saturday afternoon. But my wife spoke up enthusiastically and said that she thought it was a great idea and would get us out of the house. Debbie agreed it would be fun. So I said, “looks like we have a plan, lets go!”. We jumped in to Steve’s old Toyota Camry and set off. The air-conditioning wasn’t working and so we had the windows down but it was still like an oven and too noisy to talk.
We got to Adeline and the Mall was full overweight Midwestern couples in leisure suits, stores selling things I can’t imagine anyone needing, there was upbeat piped music, and the whole place smelled of sugar donuts. We ended up eating at a Chinese Restaurant where the food was overpriced and all the dishes tasted much the same.
On the way back none of us had much energy for conversation in the dark on long straight roads and into a barrage of oncoming headlights. It seemed all of us couldn’t wait to be home and there was an uneasy tension in the car. Then Debbie said “You know, I didn’t enjoy that at all and I am sorry I let you all talk me into it.” Then my wife said “ Well I didn’t want to go but I wanted to support Steve who was only trying to be helpful.” And I said, “I never wanted to go but the three of you had already decided.”
Then finally Steve also spoke, “I didn’t really want to go but I just wanted to show you all a good time, it is not often you visit and I was worried you might be bored just sitting there playing cards.”
So it turned out that we had all taken a journey of nearly 200 kilometers, in almost unbearable heat, that none of us wanted to take in the first place to reach a destination we weren’t interested in.
I find this one of the most fascinating stories as it relates to international development. I see it occurring in groups of staff and in community groups and especially when our staff and community groups are working together. In the last case it is because whether it is actually true or not, the communities we are working with often perceive us as having a plan, money and power and a community group essentially says, “Well if you want to go to Abilene we will come with you.”
I have probably told this story to fifty different groups and whether it is to villagers sitting in a mud floored church in some remote region in Africa, or whether to a staff team in an office, it has never failed to cause laughter and exchanges of knowing looks. When I ask them about the story, group members always confirm that they have been to ‘Abilene’ many times.
In the case of international development organizations one of the dominant considerations is minimizing the risk that the donor’s money will be wasted. This has encouraged mindsets and systems where minimizing risks often seems to be more important than taking risks to make a situation better. Over many years of development there has been a push away from inspired individuals, perhaps characterized by the passionate or even slightly mad missionary, in favor of a professional and scientific approach. This can lead us to a ladder of interference that often carries within it at least one false assumption. Which means that whole ladder is flawed.
As an example, a simple form of this thinking is:
People in the developing world are poor,
If they had money they would be happier and healthier,
What they need is money,
Money will solve their problems,
Let’s raise money.
Or in a more nuanced example, we are visiting a poor village where the people have little money and their children are suffering. We look for data, we notice there is no power, running water and primitive farming methods.
Then we look for more examples of how we think the lack of technology is trapping these villagers in poverty
With this filtered view, we start to add meaning to our data based on our own experiences and beliefs….we may think, ‘ if they had more technology their incomes would rise and they would be healthier and happier and be able to care better for their children.’
Then we draw conclusions based on our own experiences – technology is key to my personal productivity, all these people need is technology to increase their productivity and their incomes and be able to care better for their children.
We then adopt these beliefs…..if we raise more money for technology children will benefit.
Then we take action – ‘let’s start a fundraising appeal to solve the problems faced by these poor villagers so they can acquire technology and their children will be happier and healthier and have better futures.’
International development is littered with examples where a flawed ladder of inference has led to poor results.
The reason for raising this in the context of the Abilene Paradox is that in international development, we are more inclined to hire people who can fit in and be part of a team and work to a prescribed plan, based on a ladder of inference, as a team of professionals, rather proactively encouraging diverse thinking by the people who are closest to the ground in generative options for change. It is also true that in developing countries we are inclined to hire staff who share a common “compliance” worldview.
This leaves us very vulnerable to suggesting trips to Abilene and taking communities with us. Whether it is a villager in a poor village or one of our staff, not going along with the plan can be perceived as disloyal, obstructive and hurting people who are poor.
In a village there is often a hierarchy based on clan, wealth, age, power or politics and I have often noticed, that irrespective of the discussion, there will be one man who speaks and even though I know that many don’t agree with his opinion they will all end up supporting him. Never is this truer than when electing the head of a community group. I have spoken with all the other members of a group individually and they will all agree the person they have elected as chair is not the best person for the job yet they elected him none the less.
I have also seen staff putting forward a plan, that may well be a trip to Abilene and everyone unanimously agrees with the plan, yet the staff individually have doubts and done really have much hope that the planned results will be achieved but they feel they have no choice. And the villagers will also say that they doubt things will go as planned but if the development organization thinks that this is a good idea then they are happy to make the journey and see what happens. What transpires, is that the community group begins to show low motivation, members come late to meetings or miss them altogether. My belief is that this is because the collective group embarked on a journey that no one wanted to take, but everyone wanted to please everyone else and there didn’t seem to be a better alternative at the time, so off they all went to Abilene.
The beginning of the Abilene trap is that staff or community members fail to clearly communicate their desires or beliefs with each other. And actually do the opposite; expressing enthusiasm for an idea thereby leading each other to misperceiving the groups shared beliefs. So it is then natural that this collective misperception will lead the group to make decisions and embark on actions that their heart is not in.
Predictably, rather than leading to strong collective action this paradox is more inclined to lead to frustration, demotivation, blame sharing, undermining, anger and disassociation with the group or process. At its core the Abilene Paradox has to do with a groups inability to manage a process of open communications, manage different points of view, and manage a way to find a shared agreement.
Underlying the Abilene Paradox can be the fantasies held by group members. The international development staff team may believe that the donor or the organization will not tolerate the longer time frames that might be required to manage a more complex agreement process or that there is no way through organizational bureaucracy or that the team is in common agreement…… except for them. The Community group may believe that the development organization has a fixed idea of what needs to happen and so try to anticipate what they think is required of them in the situation. Either group may have a collective belief in their own powerless.
In many cases what is likely to be at the core of the Paradox is each member’s fear of separation from the group, of isolation, alienation or ostracism. Members might feel that to voice their own views or feelings will be perceived as disloyal, obstructive or not being a constructive team player. In fact agreeing outwardly but disagreeing inwardly has the very effect that the individual was trying to avoid. They are now frustrated and feeling alone with a decision that they helped create!
For me the first step of “bypassing” Abilene is to understand the existence and danger of the Abilene Paradox in the first place. I believe it is vital to separate the process of gaining points of view from managing the process for finding agreement. The second step is to find ways to ensure that genuine diversity of opinions is encouraged by broadening the parameters of the discussion before becoming more focused. One way to do this is to brainstorm twenty or thirty different points of view before again narrowing by beginning to group them into “buckets” of interests. The next step is to try to describe the diversity of views the multiple realities and “truths” of the situation and creating an environment that holds the possibility for a genuine shared way forward that avoids a trip to Abeline.
(This is a retelling of the original Abilene Paradox story Professor Jerry B. Harvey Phd, and my reflection also draws on theory from some of his writings.)
Jock Noble January 2014.
Jock Noble is the Lead or World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.
© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist – Anna Avetisyan