Consensus or Conformity: Abilene, Anyone?
Among the long list of leadership challenges is the worthy but elusive concept of consensus. While we strive for alignment in our organization, it can be difficult to achieve in its most genuine form.
The issue is captured in what has come to be called “The Abilene Paradox” which describes the management challenge of trying to effectively manage agreement. Popularized by Jerry B. Harvey, the concept is taken from a story about a family spending a hot Texas afternoon on their front porch. Someone suggests a trip to Abeline to have lunch in a particular restaurant. One by one, family members agree. Off they go on what became, somewhat predictably, a miserable, hot, dusty trip to Abilene, followed by lunch in a nondescript setting, and an equally tedious, thoroughly un-enjoyable trip back home. As it turns out, no one wanted to go to Abilene in the first place, each simply agreed so as not to “rock the boat.”
When “going along to get along” becomes the motivation, groups of otherwise sound thinking individuals, whether in families or in organizations, meld together and agree to a course of action no one really wants or supports. The result can be as pedestrian as a mis-spent afternoon, or as impactful as a decision that turns an organization in the wrong direction. What’s a leader to do?
Encouraging active discussion, dialogue, and debate (and understanding the difference between the three) can be a sound starting point. Bringing some structure and ground rules for engagement to group sessions is also helpful. Surfacing healthy, constructive conflict in a safe setting does not happen by accident. This is where the skills, experience and expertise of a professional facilitator can be invaluable. It’s been said that facilitating meetings (especially when the topic is strategy and planning) is easy when you don’t know what you’re doing and very difficult when you do.
How are your team meetings going? Is there true alignment, especially among your senior leadership team, or surface agreement with little or no foundation? It can be hard to tell the difference at first. The evidence is always found in the execution of the plan where disappointment turns to excuse making and finger pointing. There’s a better way.
For more information on ways to maximize team engagement, including a complimentary copy of “Ground Rules for Effective Engagement”, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joseph P. Truncale, Ph.D., CAE, is the Founder and Principal of Alexander Joseph Associates, a privately held consultancy specializing in executive business advisory services with clients throughout the graphic communications industry.
Joe spent 30 years with NAPL, including 11 years as President and CEO. He is an adjunct professor at NYU teaching graduate courses in Executive Leadership; Financial Management and Analysis; Finance for Marketing Decisions; and Leadership: The C Suite Perspective. He may be reached at Joe@ajstrategy.com. Phone or text: (201) 394-8160.