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Are We Headed to Abilene?

How the Abilene Paradox Hinders Team Collaboration

07/02/2010 by Badri Srinivasan

Collaboration is an important aspect of any complex activity. On complex projects, a single individual cannot guarantee successful customer delivery—one that meets schedule, quality, cost, and other parameters. It takes a cohesive team.

Scrum promotes these cohesive, self-organizing teams. Scrum teams are tasked with finding the most optimal way to accomplish the work. To do this, they make decisions ranging from how best to meet goals to who should work on which tasks. Reaching group consensus can be difficult. Some opinions are more dominant than others; some voices more hesitant to speak out. Even in agreement, true consensus might not exist. One manifestation of this is the Abilene Paradox.

Abilene Paradox Explained

The Abilene Paradox happens when a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. This occurs because each member mistakenly believes that his own preferences are a contradiction to the group and, therefore, does not raise objections. When this happens, team members, in an effort not to "rock the boat," don’t voice their thoughts, desires, or intentions.

Let’s look at an example. Scrum teams are cross-functional, which should mean that any one individual can do any task during a sprint. In reality, however, a team member(s) in a Scrum team might be hesitant to pick a particular task if he feels other members in the team are better suited for the task. Suppose, for instance, that a team member, Jim, wants to take a task but is hesitant to volunteer because he is not exactly sure how to execute and deliver the task. At the same time, he knows that another team member, Jane, typically takes tasks of that nature. Jim subsequently chooses an alternative task, which he feels will not disrupt the team work.

At the same time, Jane feels her skills would be best used on a challenging new task, but sees that a task that she would typically take is still unclaimed. She takes that task even though she’d rather take another. Other team members choose in a similar manner. The end result is that, though the team seems to have reached an agreement, no one believes that the tasks are optimized adequately. As such, each team member is a little unhappy but thinks he or she must be alone in feeling that way. 

Another form of the Abilene paradox is groupthink—a type of thought within a deeply cohesive group whose members try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. When a team is influenced by groupthink, team members avoid promoting viewpoints outside the comfort zone of consensus thinking. A variety of motives for this may exist, such as a desire to avoid being seen as foolish, or a desire to avoid embarrassing or angering other members of the team. Groupthink might cause teams to make hasty, irrational decisions, where individual doubts are set aside, for fear of upsetting the team’s balance.

How Abilene Paradox Starts

The sad fact is that teams sometimes have just as many problems managing their agreements as they do their disagreements. This can be true for many reasons:

  • A bias in collecting the required information
  • Failure to examine risks for the preferred choices
  • Contingency plans have not been worked out properly
  • The selected alternatives and the objectives are not completely evaluated
  • Failure to re-evaluate previously rejected alternatives
  • Searching the relevant information has not been not done properly

All of these factors create a feeling of hesitancy among team members. Thus, when selecting an option, they begin to concern themselves with how others will feel instead of thinking in a rational manner.

Avoiding the Abilene Paradox

To help avoid this syndrome, before my team finalizes a decision, we ask each other, "Are we going to Abilene?" This is a reminder to all of us to speak up if we disagree. Taking this extra step helps us ensure that our decisions are legitimately desired by the team's members and not merely a result of groupthink.

Some other actions that can help prevent an occurrence of the Abilene Paradox include:

  • The senior team members should encourage the junior team members. Senior team members should not express their opinions before the junior members have shared their opinions.
  • The team could assign one member to perform the role of the critical evaluator. The evaluator’s job is to critically highlight the advantages/disadvantages and key attributes of the suggested solution. This also helps the junior members to freely express their opinions as part of the role. It also gives other team members the opportunity to explore the areas of concern and express their doubts.
  • All the alternatives should be explicitly examined. This helps to check previously rejected alternatives.
  • The team should also discuss key ideas with other teams who might have faced a similar situation. Knowing the best practices and lessons learned helps the team focus on the core issue.
  • At least one group member should be assigned the role of devil's advocate. A devil's advocate is someone who takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with for the sake of argument. This process can also be used to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure. This role could be rotated among the team members.

Keep in mind that teams need not go through these steps for every single decision, as lower level decisions and other non-critical decisions can be made with minimal data. Teams should exercise these more indepth analysis techniques on critical decisions, those which influence the customer goal directly and impact the business value. By exploring all the possible options and opportunities, the team increases the probability of success in meeting the customer goal.

The Abilene Paradox leads to another implicit paradox — Teams need to be cohesive but at the same time should not be cohesive! By that I mean that while team cohesion is essential for completing work successfully, that same team cohesion should not impede individual and rational thinking.