Corporate Foolery and the Abilene Paradox
…or, a little bit about how I see myself…
I can’t remember the context now, but a little while ago I picked up the following tweet from Pete Mitton:
The Abilene Paradox? So what’s that when it’s at home, then?
The Abilene Paradox is a phenomenon in which the limits of a particular situation seems to force a group of people to act in a way that is the opposite of what they actually want. This situation can occur when groups continue with misguided activities which no group member desires because no member is willing to raise objections, or displease the others.
The paradox was introduced and illustrated by means of the following anecdote, recounted in an article from 1974 – “The abilene paradox: The management of agreement” by Jerry Harvey [doi:10.1016/0090-2616(74)90005-9]:
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 trip to Abilene [53 miles north] 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.
Hence the need for the “corporate fool”, a role I aspire to…;-)
the curious double-act of king and fool, master and servant, substance and shadow, may thus be seen as a universal, symbolic expression of the antithesis lying at the heart of of the autocratic state between the forces of order and disorder, of structured authority and incipient anarchy, in which the conditional nature of the fool’s licence (‘so far but not further’) gives reassurance that ultimately order will prevail. The fool, though constrained, continually threatens to break free in pushing to its limits whatever freedom he is given. He is the trickster of myth in an historical strait-jacket from which he is forever struggling to escape. And if the king, the dominant partner, sets the tone of their exchanges and the fool has everything to gain from a willing acceptance of his subservient role, his participation can never be forced. If, for whatever reason, he should come to feel that his master has reneged on the unwritten contract between them (the rules of the game), it is always open to him to refuse to play, however costly to himself the refusal might prove to be. He thus retains – and needs to retain if he is to achieve the full potential of his role – a degree of independence. Like the actor on stage in a live performance, success is inevitably accompanied by the possibility of failure. …
But there was a danger on both sides of this balancing act. If the fool risked going too far in his banter and tricks, the king was also vulnerable to the fool’s abuse of the licence he was given. ["Fools and Jesters at the English Court", J Southworth, p3.]
See also: OMG…There are spies everywhere sabotaging our organizations!!, which reveals some tricks about how to destroy your organisation from within (“General Interference with Organizations and Production”), via the uncompromising OSS Simple Sabotage Manual [Declassified] (PDF).
I once started putting together an “anti-training” course based around this sort of thing, called “Thinking Inside the Box”. It’s a shame I never blogged the notes – all that knowledge is lost, now ;-)