Master Facilitator Journal, the ezine for facilitators.  


Skill of the Week


Home | Skill of the Week | Archives | Resources | Forums | Advertising
Life Coaching | About Us |
Contact Us | Subscribe


Intro to Appreciative Inquiry. New 4-week Teleclass Starts June 11th at 2PM EDT. Click here for info.

Click here to view new MFJ magic meeting mug!

Ad-free pdf version of MFJ now available. Click

here for details.

Affordable alternative to "live" coaching.

Click Here for Details.

Self-Guided Real Audio Version Now Available.

Click here
to learn more about our new Virtual University for Facilitators.

The Master Facilitator Journal | Issue #0103 | June 3, 2003
7,500 Subscribers

picture of Steve Davis, editor of the Master Facilitator Journal.

From the Publisher: 

Hello MFJ Readers. 

Our feature article in this issue is by Jerry B. Harvey, author of "The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management." He use “the Abilene Paradox,” as a label for the tendency for groups to embark on excursions that no group member wants, for reasons which will be clear after reading the article.

Stated simply, when organizations blunder into the Abilene Paradox, they take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. Business theorists typically believe that managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges faced by any organization, but as corollary illustrated by the Abilene Paradox, the inability to manage agreement may be the major source of organizational dysfunction.

Also please note that our first teleclass in Appreciate Inquiry starts next Wednesday, June 11th at 2PM EDT. There is still room. See details and registration info at the bottom of this issue.

If you or your colleagues are interested in submitting an article for consideration, please email your ideas. I'd love to hear from you.

Have a great week... 
Steve Davis


The Abiline Paradox: The Management of Agreement
A case study in repressed desire and group dynamics.


That July afternoon in Coleman, Texas (population 5,607), was
particularly hot - 104 degrees according to the Walgreen’s Rexall’s
thermometer. In addition, the wind was blowing fine-grained West Texas
topsoil through the house. But the afternoon was still tolerable – even
potentially enjoyable. A fan was stirring in the air on the back porch;
there was cold lemonade; and finally, there was entertainment.
Dominoes. Perfect for the conditions. The game requires little more
physical exertion than an occasional mumbled comment, “Shuffle’em,” and an unhurried movement of the arm to place the tiles in their appropriate positions on the table. All in all, it had the makings of an agreeable Sunday afternoon in Coleman. That is, until my father-in-law suddenly said, “Let’s get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria.”

I thought, “What, go to Abilene? Fifty-three miles? In this dust storm and heat? And in an unairconditioned 1958 Buick?”

But my wife chimed in with, “Sounds like a great idea. I’d like to go. How about you, Jerry?” Since my own preferences were obviously out of step with the rest, I replied, “Sounds good to me,” and added, “I just hope your mother wants to go.”

“Of course I want to go,” said my mother-in-law. “I haven’t been to Abilene in a long time.”

So into the car and off to Abilene we went. My predications were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we arrived. The cafeteria’s food could serve as a first-rate prop in an antacid commercial.

Some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman, hot and
exhausted. We silently sat in front of the fan for a long time. Then, to be sociable and to break the silence, I dishonestly said, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?”

No one spoke.

Finally, my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, “Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here. I just went along because the three of you were so enthusiastic about going. I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.”

I couldn’t believe it. “What do you mean you all?” I said. “Don’t put me in the you’all group. I was delighted to be doing what we were doing. I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.”

My wife looked shocked. “Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in heat like that.”

Her father entered the conversation with the word: “Shee-it.” He then expanded on what was already absolutely clear: “Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.”

After the outburst of recrimination, we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who – of our own volition – had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in furnace-like heat and a dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. To be concise, we’d just done the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.


At least it didn’t make sense at the time. But since that day in Coleman, I have observed, consulted with, and been a part of more than one organization that has been caught in the same situation. As a result, the
organizations have either taken side trips or, occasionally, terminal “journeys to Abilene,” when Dallas or Houston or Tokyo was where they really wanted to go. And for most of those organizations, the negative
consequences of such trips, measured in terms of both human misery and economic loss, have been much greater than for our little Abilene group.

I now call the tendency for groups to embark on excursions that no group member wants “the Abilene Paradox.” Stated simply, when organizations blunder into the Abilene Paradox, they take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve. Business theorists typically believe that managing conflict is one of the greatest challenges faced by any organization, but as corollary the Abilene Paradox illustrates that the inability to manage agreement may be the major source of organization dysfunction.

Symptoms of the Paradox

“The inability to manage agreement – not the inability to manage conflict–is the essential symptom that defines organizations caught in the web of the Abilene Paradox." Groups that fail to manage agreement effectively display six specific characteristics, all of which were present when my family went to Abilene:

1. Organization members individually agree in private (in the parking lot or at the café or on the phone) about the nature of the situation or problem facing the organization. For example, members of the Abilene group agreed that they were enjoying themselves sitting in front of the fan, sipping lemonade, and playing dominoes.

2. Organization members agree in private about what steps would be required to cope with the situation or problem. For members of the Abilene group, “more of the same” was a solution that would have adequately satisfied individual and collective desires.

3. Organization members fail to accurately communicate their desires and/or beliefs to one another. (I didn’t want to say anything for fear of hurting someone!) In fact, they do just the opposite, thereby leading one another into misperceiving the collective reality. (Sending the vision, goal, or objective into a tail spin!) On the basis of incorrect assumptions about the consensus, each member of the Abilene group communicated inaccurate data to the other members of the organization. The data, in effect, said, “Yeah, it’s a great idea. Let’s go to Abilene.” When, in reality, members of the organization individually and collectively preferred to stay in Coleman.

4. With such invalid and inaccurate information, organization members make collective decisions that lead them to take actions contrary to what they want to do, thereby arriving at results that are counterproductive to the organization’s intent and purposes. Thus, the Abilene group went to Abilene when it preferred to do something else.

5. As a result of taking actions that are counterproductive,
organization members experience frustration, anger, irritation, and dissatisfaction with their organization
. Consequently, they form subgroups with trusted acquaintances and blame other subgroups for the organization’s dilemma. Frequently, they also blame authority figures and one another. Such phenomena were illustrated in the Abilene group by the “culprit” argument that occurred when we had returned to the comfort of the fan.

6. Finally, if organization members do not deal with the generic issue– the inability to manage agreement – the cycle repeats itself with greater intensity. Largely because it became conscious of the process, the Abilene group did not reach that point.

To repeat, the Abilene Paradox reflects a failure to manage agreement. In
fact, it is my contention that the inability to cope with (manage) agreement, rather than the inability to cope with (manage) conflict, is the single most pressing issue of modern organizations

About the Author: This article was written by Jerry B. Harvey, author of "The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management." Lexington Books, 1988.


How has the Abilene Paradox manifested in your life lately? I'd love to hear what you discover. Please email us your comments.

cartoon image of a talking man.

Reader Survey 

What stories, anecdotes, quotes, etc. do you use to enliven your work with groups? 

We're looking for stories like the one above, case studies, quotes, situations, etc. that illustrate various aspects of personal growth and group dynamics that group facilitators and trainers would find helpful. Please send resources that you find helpful to and we'll share with you all the inputs received. 


The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management, by Jerry B. Harvey.

When Jerry B. Harvey first coined the phrase "Abilene Paradox" in 1974 , he set off shock waves among business people across the country. Using a common family experience, he pointed out that events often gather momentum and take on lives of their own, in spite of the fact that nobody wants to take part in them. Harvey offers insightful and often uproariously funny "meditations" on the craziness of this paradox in our daily work lives. With familiar stories presented in surprising ways, Harvey reveals how organizations set themselves up for failure by fostering an atmosphere of alienation, distrust, and fear of risk-taking among their members. T
he "Abilene Paradox" is a metaphor for how groups often agree to take actions that contradict what the individual members believe is right, in terms of corporate decisions and illogical interactions.

About the Publisher
Steve Davis is a Facilitator's Coach helping leaders enhance their effectiveness through the application and perspective of facilitation. Please email or call me at 805-489-4130 to schedule a Free exploratory session, or to share your suggestions and ideas for the journal. I'd love to hear from you. If you find this newsletter helpful, please forward it to your friends. Thanks for reading!

In the Spotlight

Appreciative Inquiry
A Provocative Proposal for Unleashing the Power of What Works...

Join us for this 4-week TeleClass with AI experts, Patricia Clason and Bert Stitt starting June 11th, 2PM EDT


This four session series on Appreciative Inquiry, is a facilitation strategy for intentional change that identifies the best of "what is" in order to pursue dreams and possibilities of "what could be." Within these classes we will explore the four dynamics of AI, Discovery, Dream, Design and Delivery. Plan to bring with you the challenges you have encountered or are experiencing in the group/organizational change process. These sessions will be interactive and we will encourage discussion of specific situations in which Appreciate Inquiry might be applied.

The Eight Assumptions of Appreciative Inquiry, Wednesday, June 11th

Explore the nature of assumptions in an organization/group. We will define and discuss the base assumptions of AI, how they affect the change process and how we may have experienced them already in our facilitation practice.

The Six Core Principles of Appreciative Inquiry, Wednesday, June 18th

Understanding the DNA of Appreciative Inquiry gives us a foundation upon which we can build the infrastructure of a change process that works.

The Five Steps to Appreciative Inquiry, Wednesday, June 25th

From creating a provocative proposal to manifesting a destiny, each step is crucial to the process of Appreciative Inquiry. We get to incorporate the "buzzwords" of the last decade, Innovation, Empowerment, Continuous Leaning, Partnership, and Making A Difference, into a process of change that is FUN! Imagine the possibilities!

Outcomes and Opportunities (one month after the first three classes), Wednesday, July 23rd

This session will be a celebration of learning about what worked and what didn't work for class participants as they applied the concepts of AI in their practice with clients and organizations, as well as discussion on further opportunities for implementing and integrating Appreciative Inquiry.

Also included with your training...
In addition to the 4-Week training described above, you also receive:

1. Free access to the RealAudio version of this training.
2. A Bibliography of leading works on AI.
3. A number of web resources to support your work in this field.
4. Summary notes of each class session.
5. List of class participants.

Benefits to you of participating 4-Week Training...
1. Get a great introduction to the concept and practice of Appreciative Inquiry to add to your toolbox as a facilitator, team leader, coach, or leader.
2. Learn to employ a change process that works.
3. Learn how to come from a positive, "what works" perspective when working with individuals and groups.

Leader Bios

Bert Stitt operates a home-based consultancy from Madison, Wisconsin. He provides facilitation services, public engagement consultation, and organizational development for community-building projects, coaching for non-governmental organizations, mediation and facilitation for governmental agencies, and strategic planning processes for associations, foundations, and small businesses. Appreciative Inquiry is a relatively recent tool that Bert is finding very useful as he reaches into the toolbox while helping to build the organizations he works with.

Patricia Clason has traveled across the continent doing speeches, workshops and media appearances as a professional speaker, trainer, consultant and writer, giving over 3,000 presentations for corporations, associations, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Now the Director of the Center for Creative Learning which offers programs for personal and professional development and has written many articles, training programs and personal growth seminars and is a sought-after guest for radio and television. Patricia likes to focus on alternative methods of teaching and learning, addressing the psychological perspectives and principles behind the practical tools that she teaches. As a result, audiences are often entranced with her and excited about using these new ideas.

Course Fee and Registration.
The full cost of training is only $64.95 for MFJ readers ($79.95 for the general public). Everything you read about above is included. And, we offer a 100%-satisfaction-guaranteed guarantee. The class will meet on the following four Wednesdays at 2:00 PM EDT (NY Time), June 11th, June 18th, June 25th, and one month later on July 23rd.

Please click here and you'll be taken to the teleclass registration page. Register there and you'll see your discount computed and applied as you check out. Immediately upon completion of your registration, you will receive an email with instructions to access the course
. This course is limited to 20 individuals, first come, first served.

About the satisfaction guarantee
If, for any reason, you are not satisfied with this course, simply email us with a request to refund/credit your credit card in the full amount and we will do so immediately. It's our policy to do this and we honor this in every single case. (Why? Because we are sensitive to the fact that you are buying an e-course/product from us and we feel that if this package isn't EXACTLY what you expected or wanted, that you should be able to get 100% of your money back. This policy completely removes the buying risk for you and keeps our customer-satisfaction rates extremely high.)

Click here to register now!


Thank you for reading this issue of the Master Facilitator Journal. Look for your next issue on June 10, 2003.


Copyright ©2003. All Rights Reserved