Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Abilene Paradox: An Adventure in Group Dynamics

The past few days have been filled with training sessions...some of them more interesting than others. Tuesday i had the pleasure of hearing our director of training and marketing (as well as i3 participant), Mary Dolan, speak on an interesting aspect of group dynamics called, The Abilene Paradox.

For me, the word "paradox" always conjures images of Stephen Hawking and black hole theory. Maybe its because I'm a nerd that I've always associated it with complex mathematics and mind bending theories; the definition itself is a bit enigmatic, "A paradox is an apparently true statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition". Whoa! wrap your head around that for a second! Don't panic though, its a lot simpler than it sounds.

The Abilene Paradox happens when a group makes a decision that is in direct conflict with the individual feelings of the group's members. How exactly does this happen? I'll use a (dramatized) situation that has sprung up recently at MSCU. Say you are on a committee at your credit union. This committee consists of you, the President, Vice President, Jim from member services, and Susan from the teller line. Your job is to discus the opening of a new branch.

Susan has seen the number of members coming into the main branch drop steadily since the opening of a second branch. She knows that if the credit union were to open a third branch the work load would be non-existent. She also knows that the other members of the committee have been very excited about opening this new branch, so she goes along for fear of being ostracized from the group.

Jim has heard from many members that it isn't the number of branches, but the quality of service that keeps members coming back. He also knows that people looking for multiple branches are looking for nationwide access and shared branching is their solution. He also knows that the president is dedicated to spreading branches throughout the credit unions broad field of membership, so he agrees to the plan to avoid angering his boss.

The President and Vice President have had many a conversation over the benefits of another branch and decided that the cost of the operation outweighs any benefit gained. They also know that all the committee members back the plan whole-heartedly and have expressed their excitement about expanding the credit unions membership. They go along with the plan because the rest of the committee says it is the right move.

So now we find ourselves with a paradox. Every single member of the committee is individually opposed to a new branch, but they contradict their opinion in fear of being removed. Be it by unemployment, ostracism, or a drop in reputation, everyone is afraid of being removed from the group in some form. So, the plan continues because each member is supporting the plan to protect themselves from their own imagined risk.

What to do, what to do? The simple answer is "SPEAK UP!" If only it were that easy. Here are a couple of tips taken from the training session and my own mind that (hopefully) help point the way.

-Separate "real risk" from "imagined risk". Whenever I need to make a decision my mind lands on the worst case scenario. What I, and everybody else, needs to remember is that this is a negative fantasy. We make up events in our minds and hold back because we are afraid they will come true. Figure out what the real risk of your action is, don't base your decision making on imagined catastrophe.

- Don't be afraid of being different. Your peers are not going to chase you out of the board room with pitch forks and torches because you offered a differing opinion. Sometimes a different point of view is exactly what a company needs to find itself on the right track. Or you might just find out that most of the committee never wanted to go along to begin with.

- Don't hold back because you're "not an expert". Yeah, Jim may have gone to school for business, but that doesn't mean that his opinion is any more valid than your own. Do some research, back up your point of view, present it in an intelligent way, and the fact that you don't have a degree in that specific field tends to disappear faster than the platter of doughnuts on the break-room table.

Keep these things in mind the next time you find yourself around the conference table. Do you really want to find your credit union on a road that nobody wanted to be on in the first place?

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