This month our nation will see an historic Presidential inauguration. In the last two months leading up to this, you’ve undoubtedly been aware of the energy and screening that our nation’s new president-elect has put into selecting his Cabinet. He has appointed people diverse in every way-not just race, gender and ethnicity, but also in political viewpoints. He has named people to his highest advisory board who hold quite separate and even opposite views from his own. President-elect Obama has done this deliberately, stating that he wants a “team of rivals.”
This will surely be a challenging and perhaps even rancorous exercise. But it’s a powerful leadership strategy that gives us hints of the way this president will govern and, I believe, is a great model for all of us in the business world.
There is a parable used in business to describe a type of group decision-making. The parable was created in the 1970’s by a George Washington University professor named Jerry Harvey. Harvey’s parable was based on a real-life event that took place with his family one very hot day in the town of Coleman, Texas, while he was visiting his in-laws. The family—Harvey, his wife, and his wife’s parents—was sitting lazily on the porch, drinking lemonade and playing the occasional game of cards or dominoes. At some point, the wife’s father, perhaps concerned that he wasn’t entertaining his guests well enough, suggested they drive to Abilene, 53 miles away, to eat lunch. Harvey was content where he was and thought it was crazy to drive so far in the terrible heat just to eat lunch, but his wife and mother-in-law seemed to want to go. Harvey didn’t want to be a killjoy, so he went along with it, too.
The trip was a disaster. They piled into their non-air-conditioned Buick, with the windows rolled down, only to encounter a dust storm about half-way to Abilene. They were suffocating in the heat and dust, but chose to keep on going. When they finally arrived in Abilene, hot, thirsty, hungry, and covered with dust, they found very few options of places to eat. The cafeteria they finally settled on served up only dismal, second-rate food, which the family ate glumly. Then they piled back into the Buick and returned to Coleman-miserable and unhappy with the experience. Only when they arrived home was it revealed that none of them had really wanted to go to Abilene in the first place—each one just “went along” because it seemed like everyone else wanted to go.
The parable, often known as the Abilene Paradox, represents a concept known as “groupthink.” The Abilene Paradox—or groupthink—occurs when members of a group make a decision and take action, in spite of individual group members’ private misgivings about the desirability or wisdom of the action. They go along to get along.
This parable has spawned books, videos, and case studies that are used to illustrate a major symptom of organizational dysfunction: the management of agreement—as opposed to the management of disagreement. It appears that Barack Obama is setting a course for management of disagreement—a way to guarantee that all sides of a position will get stated, heard and considered and that no decision will be made without all that diverse input. It remains to be seen, of course, what kind of legacy Obama’s presidency will leave. But it feels to me like he’s off to a great start, ensuring at the very least, that his administration’s decision-making will not go to Abilene.