Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

The Abilene paradox in front-end decision-making on projects

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The Abilene paradox refers to a situation in which a group of people make a collective decision that is counter to the preferences or interests of everyone in the group. The paradox was first described by Jerry Harvey, via a story that is summarised nicely in the Wikipedia article on the topic. I reproduce the story verbatim below:

On a hot afternoon 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.

Harvey contends that variants of this story play out over and over again in corporate environments. As he states in this paper, organizations frequently take actions in contradiction to what they really want to do and therefore defeat the very purposes they are trying to achieve.

The Abilene paradox is  essentially a consequence of the failure to achieve a shared understanding of a problem before deciding on a solution.  A case in point is Nokia’s ill-judged restructuring circa 2003, initiated in response to the rapidly changing mobile phone market.

Prior to the restructure, Nokia was a product-oriented company that focused on developing one or two new phone models per year. Then, as quoted by an employee in an article published in Helsingin Sanomat (A Finnish daily), Nokia management deemed that: “Two new models a year was no longer enough, but there was a perceived need to bring out as many as 40 or 50 models a year… An utterly terrifying number.”  Company management knew that it would be impossible to churn out so many models under the old, product-focused structure. So they decided to reorganise the company into different divisions comprising of teams dedicated to creating standard components (such as cameras), the idea being that standard components could be mixed-and-matched into several “new”  phone models every year .

The restructuring and its consequences are described in this article as follows:

[The] re-organisation split Nokia’s all-conquering mobile phones division into three units. The architect was Jorma Ollila, Nokia’s most successful ever CEO, and a popular figure – who steered the company from crisis in 1992 to market leadership in mobile phones – and who as chairman oversaw the ousting of Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo this year [i.e 2010].

In Ollila’s reshuffle, Nokia made a transition from an agile, highly reactive product-focused company to one that managed a matrix, or portfolio. The phone division was split into three: Multimedia, Enterprise and Phones, and the divisions were encouraged to compete for staff and resources. The first Nokia made very few products to a very high standard. But after the reshuffle, which took effect on 1 January 2004, the in-fighting became entrenched, and the company being increasingly bureaucratic. The results were pure Dilbert material.

That the Nokia restructure was possibly a  “trip to Abilene” is suggested by the following excerpt from an interview with a long-time Nokia employee  (see part IV of the Helsingin Salomat article):

…Even CEO Jorma Ollila was less than enthusiastic about the heavy organisational structure, and recognised perfectly well that it was making Nokia stiff and sluggish in its movements. In their time, Ollila’s views made it all the way down to the factory floor.

But was it not Jorma Ollila himself who created the organisation he led?
“Yes”, replies the woman.

Ollila’s unwavering line was to allow his subordinates freedom, to trust them without tight controls. In this way the then leaders of the business units like Mobile Phones and Multimedia could recruit whom they wanted. And in so doing the number of managers at all levels mushroomed to enormous proportions and the product development channels became clogged…

Management actions aimed at shoring up and boosting Nokia’s market share ended up achieving just the opposite, and the  irony is that the restructure did not even have the whole-hearted support of management.

Like the Nokia restructuring effort, most projects are  initiated  in response to a perceived problem. Often times, those responsible for giving the project the go-ahead do not have an adequate appreciation of the problem or the proposed solution. As I have stated in an earlier post:

Many high profile projects fail because they succeed. This paradoxical statement is true because many projects are ill-conceived efforts directed at achieving goals that have little value or relevance to their host organisations.  Project management focuses on ensuring that the project goals are achieved in an efficient manner. The goals themselves are often “handed down from above”, so the relevance or appropriateness of these is “out of scope” for the discipline of project management.  Yet, the prevalence of projects of dubious value suggests that more attention needs to be paid to “front-end” decision making in projects – that is, decision making in the early stages, in which the initiative is just an idea.

Front-end decisions are difficult because they have to be made on the basis of ambiguous or incomplete information. This makes it all the more important that such decisions incorporate the honest views and opinions of all stakeholders in the organisation  (or their nominated representatives).  The first step in such a process  is to ensure that all stakeholders have a common understanding of the goals of the project – i.e. what needs to be done. The next is to reach a shared understanding of how those goals will be achieved. Such stakeholder alignment can be facilitated through  communication-centric, collaborative techniques such as dialogue mapping. Genuine dialogue  is the only way to prevent pointless peregrinations to places that an organisation can ill-afford to go to.

Written by K

November 5, 2010 at 10:40 pm

2 Responses

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  1. While agreeing with your main conclusions, its not clear to me how the Nokia episode is a “case in point” of the Abilene-type situation. In the Nokia case the key decision makers probably all thought “going to Abilene” (the restructure) was a good idea. They were wrong (as we can see with hindsight), but making a bad decision is a failing of a more generic kind.

    Tim van Gelder

    November 7, 2010 at 9:04 pm

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for pointing out a logical gap in my article. You’re right – I hadn’t made it clear as to how the Nokia episode is an Abilene-type situation. The point is, Ollila himself was not too enthusiastic about the changes he wrought. I have added in a quote from the Helsingen Salomat article that makes this point clear (see the para that starts, “That the Nokia restructure was possibly a “trip to Abilene” is suggested …”)

    You’re also right that making a bad decision is a failing of a more generic kind. However, I can’t help but think that if more managers said what they really thought, there would be fewer poor decisions: I think, but cannot prove, that “Abilinesque” situations are actually quite common.




    November 7, 2010 at 10:41 pm

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