Abilene Paradox and the Anaclitic Blues

Posted by Bruce Peters

Abilene TXAlmost 15 years ago I was introduced to the work of Prof. Jerry Harvey, His seminal work on the Abilene Paradox and subsequent videos created an almost cult-like following for him in the 80’s and 90’s in Business Management circles.


How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed In the Back My Fingerprints Are On the Knife continues to be my very favorite title for a business book. It’s message is that we all collude in some fashion in the results we get through the choices we make, and that resonates, perhaps, even more importantly today.

Some time ago shortly after Jerry’s passing. I wrote about my experience of Jerry and his work in my article, Legendary Thoughts: A Few Moments for Jerry Harvey .

In Abilene Paradox, Jerry tells  the compelling story of the Evolution of its Principle:

“The fundamental problem of contemporary organizations, broadly defined to include families, churches, governments, businesses and academic institutions, is the inability to cope with the fact that we agree with one another. The problem is not the inability to cope with conflict. In fact, most conflict in organizations of this kind is phony, and is unconsciously generated in an effort to keep us from having to do anything significant”

Or said in a slightly different way...

Organizations frequently take actions contrary to the desires of any of its members and defeat the purposes they’re designed to achieve.

For many years in my “Facilitative Leadership” class I’ve played an audio of Jerry Harvey telling the story of the revelation of the Paradox while on family vacation and trip to Abilene and the resultant Wilder family fight.

Anyone who has every listened to Jerry’s masterful storytelling never forgets this trip and connects immediately to trips of their own.

  • Have you ever agreed to go to dinner to a place you really didn’t want to go?
  • Did you ever remain silent (with others) while your organization or team set off on a course that everyone agreed was doomed to fail?
  • Think the failed flight of the “Challenger” where all of the brilliant expert department heads said “ fly” when they all had knew the unequivocal evidence that at low temperatures the “o rings” would be unstable and most likely to fail.

When confronted with the Abilene Paradox, the participants have virtually no trouble coming up with trips that they and their organizations are currently traveling.

Those of you from the Rochester, NY area can only imagine the trips taken along the way to the demise at Eastman Kodak or Xerox.

Why am I revisiting or writing about Jerry Harvey's work and the Abilene Paradox now?

The immediate and most obvious reason is that I recently located or encountered a YouTube video of Jerry telling the story. No surprise, but it's almost a verbatim version of the audio that I’ve been using and guarding almost zealously for all these years.

More importantly and with my own ever increasing belief in synchronicity, or in all things coincidental, at the very top of my list of things to write about was/is the Abilene Paradox.

It seems that everywhere I turn the evidence is overwhelmingly compelling that we are on trips to Abilene. Indeed, some of these trips have consequences far greater than even the tragic consequences of the failed “Challenger” mission”.

So, what is one to do… when the Buick is rolling and we are all on board?  How do we know when we’re on the trip? How do we get out?

Jerry’s video and story of the Abilene Paradox is almost two hours long. Many of the answers to above questions are weaved into the stories.

For those of you both impatient and compelled for answers can fast forward to near the end.

Any questions?

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