GOIN' TO ABILENE
"I’m hungry. Let’s go to that restaurant in Abilene for dinner," Dad suggested as he entered the family room one Saturday evening.
"Yeah, Dad, great idea!" the family responded, almost in unison.
They piled into the car and headed for Abilene. The traffic was bad. It took a whole lot longer to get there than they anticipated. Upon arrival, the wait for a table was an hour and a half. Once they were seated, the service was poor, the food was cold and tasteless, the air conditioning was on the fritz and worst of all, no one in restaurant management seemed to care.
Heading home was no better traffic-wise. It was not a pleasant trip.
Back in the family room, Dad grunted, "Why do we go there? I hate that restaurant."
"You hate that restaurant?" the family responded loudly and almost angrily. "We hate it, too. We only went because we thought it was your favorite!"
"I only suggested it because I thought it was your favorite," came Dad’s reply.
As the man said, what we have here is a failure to communicate!
Sound familiar? It should. The Abilene parable is frequently told in business school case studies. I use it routinely in my consulting practice.
Why? Because the moral of the story applies in the business world, as much as in family life. Namely, that there are times when someone must stand up and say what he is thinking. It is often what everyone is thinking but is reluctant to say. Too often we go along for the ride, knowing, or at least suspecting, that no one will be happy at the end of the trip.
At home it can happen when deciding where to go on vacation, which car to buy, what color to paint the house, or in making a myriad of other important or not-so-important decisions. It even happens at the Shindlers’. When one of us catches it, Roberta or I will ask, "Are we on the way to Abilene?" Often, we can stop before it’s too late.
Corporate decisions are fraught with the Abilene mentality. How many films that everyone knew would be bombs have gone into production anyway, because no one would stand up and say something? It’s usually painfully obvious once you’ve "arrived in Abilene." The trick is putting on the brakes before you’ve gone too far.
Usually, a trip to Abilene starts when people hold back on their initial misgivings, thinking, "Maybe I am missing something that everyone else gets. I could look bad if I say something negative now." If the boss has suggested the "trip," people will naturally be reluctant to criticize it. But the boss may have put the plan out on the table, hoping that someone would stand up and say, "No way!" or at least suggest some improvements. And although a few close colleagues may be whispering and rolling their eyes behind the boss’s back, no one is saying anything publicly.
Frequently, team members do not stand up to a bad idea because they don’t have a better alternative to propose. But everyone else may be thinking the same thing! And think about it: your silence is saying, "Better to be going full speed down the wrong track than to stop for a while and try to get on the right track."
Some people are not afraid to speak up. You probably know a few of these outspoken folks. By voicing their objections directly, they make a difference. Although they usually ruffle some feathers, ultimately they earn the (grudging) respect of their colleagues.
By taking a few minutes to step back from the various decisions we are involved in, each of us could make a difference. A few words to stop a trip to Abilene could yield more profits for your company, increase your job satisfaction, and open up discussions of future decisions.
Read John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage for some examples of people who made a difference by speaking up against popular points of view. Read any Dilbert comic strip for counter-examples.
Marty Shindler is CEO of The Shindler Perspective, Inc., an organization specializing in providing a business perspective to creative, technology, and emerging companies. Marty may be reached at Marty@iShindler.com.
This article originally appeared in LFExaminer. Used with permission.