I’d been reading aloud to my husband chapters from The Humane Workplace by my friend Amanda Sterling. In Collaborative Communities, she talks about the myth that an open plan office will make authentic, transparent communication and collaboration happen. She says that group think is also more likely to emerge when physical boundaries are removed, as the lack of boundaries encourages homogeneity because people are nervous about standing out as individuals.
I have seen this Abilene Paradox happen in new teams, old teams even. It can be confounding and not without irony when faced with this phenomenon in Agile teams – I personally find it the mother of agile anti-patterns to deal with.
Merely saying you want self management, self directed teams – does not make it magically happen even within the context of good and fertile systems and conditions.
So what is the Abilene Paradox? And why should we care?
The term was introduced by Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.
On a hot afternoon in a family is comfortably sitting on a porch, the father-in-law suggests they go to Abilene, a town about 90 km away for dinner. The wife agrees and the husband, despite not really wanting to agrees too and says, “Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go.” The mother-in-law says she wants to go as she hasn’t been tto Abilene in a long time.”
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted.
One of them dishonestly says, “It was a great trip, wasn’t it?” The mother-in-law says she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, “I didn’t want to go I only went to satisfy the rest of you. The wife says she went along to keep everyone happy. The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored.
The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it.
The phenomenon is explained by theories of social conformity and social influence which suggest human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of a group. It may occur when individuals experience action-anxiety — stress concerning the group expressing negative attitudes towards them if they do not go along.
This action-anxiety arises from what Harvey termed “negative fantasies” — unpleasant visualizations of what the group might say or do if individuals are honest about their opinions — when there is “real risk” of displeasure and negative consequences for not going along. The individual may experience “separation anxiety”, fearing exclusion from the group.
Travel the road to Abilene and you’ll arrive at a place where deeply held, logical values fall victim to group dynamics. It’s a bumpy ride that can culminate in meaningless outcomes and blame, but you can skip the trip if you know how to read the signs….
Lack of Transparency
This can happen when members of a team exhibit different opinions in a group setting as opposed to one on one. If people are telling you one thing and then offering their true opinions in private, not wanting to speak up in a group setting – then its suggestive of group think. Especially where the right conditions exist, ie a social contract is in place, team self-management is being actively desired and true opinions are being encouraged.
People will often “go along to get along” if they have any doubt at all about what will happen if they present opposition.
Members Discouraged To Lead
When someone on the team offers constructive dissent or starts to lead – the homogeneity of the group can be threatened. Anyone sticking their head up over the precipice may be told they are trying to manage. In Agile teams you even hear cries of “command and control”. Leadership is not command and control. In healthy mature self-managing teams different members will come forth at different times and lead. Self-management does not mean consensual homogeneity
Members Don’t Hold Each Other Account
For fear of upsetting anyone in the group, the group often won’t hold each other to account for the work being done (or not done) If no-one feels the freedom to point out that the work hasn’t been completed in a sprint or where the definition of done wasn’t achieved, then no one wants to take responsibility for them either. Anyone then holding the team to account as a peer can be ostracized, no longer welcome in the clique.
Members Exhibit A Lack of Trust
Eventually this lack of transparency erodes trust. Team politics can emerge and cliques can form. I’ve seen a whole team form a clique which excluded the poor Product Owner. This is symptom of a low maturity team mistakenly viewing the Product Owner as manager and creating a “them and us” dynamic.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Look at the system that is enabling this anti pattern to exist, to thrive even. Change the system.
Make Room For Individuals
I use the Sail Boat, Wind and Anchor exercise (thanks to my “roomie” Kathleen Coulton Agile Coach, Trans America). You draw a boat on the board with sails on the sea. You draw the island as the Agile team destination and talk with the team about what will be their wind in the sails, and what the anchors weighing them down, you do this on stickies as an individual exercise which you then discuss as a team. Silent brainstorming is also another good technique. Or “round robins” where you collect on stickies everyone’s opinions.
Facilitate Don’t Manage Conflict
Don’t seek to manage or smooth over conflict. Facilitate it, call it out in Retrospectives. Help the team with practical tools like how to give impact feedback or the use of a Conflict Dynamics Model and how they will as a team agree to surface conflict. Dealing successfully and openly with conflict can be most emancipatory for the team
Change the Language
Avoid language that plays to agreement in groups
Canvas each person’s opinion privately and then bring those views with you to the table rather than “is anyone opposed to this, because anyone slightly opposed won’t speak up. Don’t use rule by consensus where everyone must agree – I think that’s a common myth in Agile. Use data and transparency to make the best decisions
Educate That Agile Is Not A Free For All – Its Leadership for All!
The team will have direction set and work within certain parameters but anyone can lead at any time. In an Agile environment, we are all expected to be leaders. Anyone can trust and delegate, have a clear vision and communicate it to others. Any team member can ask questions and solicit suggestions. Anyone can make a stand.
Agile is Simple But Hard!