I came across a story first used over 40 years ago to describe a phenomenon that happens in business all the time. A group of four adults was drinking lemonade and playing dominoes in their porch in Coleman, Texas, enjoying what was otherwise a very hot summer afternoon. One of them suggests taking a drive 53 miles away, to go have lunch in Abilene. The car has no air conditioning, but not to be seen as a spoiler, they each agree and take the trip together. They end up driving in a dust storm, make it to Abilene, and have lunch in a mediocre cafeteria where the food was bad. They drive back and get home all sweaty, disheveled and uncomfortable, regretting having taken the trip only to find out that individually, they each would have preferred to stay in the porch and continue enjoying what they had started the afternoon with. It’s called the Abilene paradox.
How many times have you been in a project situation where something like this happens? Why does it happen, and how can you avoid it, especially in a startup situation, when you come to the point where you need to build a team to help get you to the next milestone?
I may not have all the answers, but I think I may know strategies that would help. Yes, I’m claiming myself ignorant with respect to this, and guess what? – it was the collective ignorance of the individual covert disagreements that lead the “leader” who initially suggested the trip to continue to go along with the decision of all the travelers to Abilene.
Effective communication is obviously the answer. If your confrontational argument and facts are grounded in reason and truth, don’t express support for a decision you think is wrong because of the strong support of others in the group. We all fall into the trap of ineffective communication. I caught myself recently saying “at that moment, I did not go into the details of the process because I did not want to antagonize the group”. One of my interlocutors, who I consider highly, called my error. By not antagonizing, even though my decision was good, I was postponing discussion, potentially ignoring better outcomes.
When building your team, as a founder starting to branch out, use effective communication to avoid the dangers of the Abilene paradox. Build a team starting with the people who want the best for you. Be truthful and precise in your communications. If you use effective communication, reason and common sense – with the right people – you will be able to accelerate the speed of business for you and your team. Their cooperative relationships will become yours, augmenting your network. This will allow you to compete at the proverbial “edge of chaos”, where a lot of the startup activity takes place. Your ability to thrive under chaos will create the confidence needed that will allow your team to produce the best outcomes more often. Failure to communicate effectively within your group will lead to collective ignorance, which may place you on the road to Abilene.