Business Book Classic: The Abilene Paradox

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The Abilene ParadoxFor a long time, we didn’t have to worry about business book “classics” because there just weren’t that many business books. Today gazillions of business books are published every year. Some are great, others are horrid, and the vast majority are mediocre. It’s the bell curve at work.

That’s why it’s worth going back to some high quality business classics. I call a business book a classic if it was first published more than twenty-five years ago and is still worth reading.

Everyone I know who has read The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management remembers it, treasures it, and uses it. I call it one of the unknown gems of management literature because it’s strangely absent from the big-time leadership reading lists and from MBA curricula.

Not your typical management book

I think that’s because The Abilene Paradox is not your typical management book. It is not a thick volume filled with a long, thoughtful discussion of important matters. It is not a collection of what the author has learned from studying the exemplars of business success. It is not about the author’s success as a business leader, creating great success for the companies he or she has led.

The Abilene Paradox is a collection of wisdom about business and life. It’s not string of chapters slowly marching an argument forward. It’s a collection of mediations. It’s different. And it’s good.

One of Harvey’s friends, Bill Dyer, recommended that Harvey write a book like this so that his children and grandchildren would know something about him. Here’s the wording as Harvey recounts it: “You have always been a little weird, and a compilation of some of your work might help them comprehend your more blatant peculiarities.”

You’ll get a sense of how unique this book is when you start reading the introduction. It begins with Harvey’s daughter, Suzanne, coming home from church with the question “Daddy, what if God is a mouse?”

If you’re a parent, you’ll recognize the kind of conversation that happens next. Harvey uses it to demonstrate how this is a management book that’s different from all others.

What’s in the book

The title essay for the book is titled “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.” It starts on a hot July afternoon in Coleman, Texas when Harvey and his family all climb into the un-air-conditioned car to take a trip to Abilene for ice cream. The key point here is that they all agree to go, even though not a single one of them actually wants to go.

You will probably recognize the dynamics of the Paradox if you’ve ever been in any group that has forged ahead with a plan of action that everyone thought was really stupid. If you have suppressed the memories of those incidents Harvey reminds you what they’re like, then outlines how they happen and how to head them off.

In another meditation, Harvey compares most organizations to “phrog farms.” He points out that in most fairy tales, the princess kisses a frog who magically turns into a handsome prince. In most organizations, he suggests, the reverse happens. Business princes (bosses) work hard to use magic incantations to turn people into phrogs.

My favorite meditation is titled “Captain Asoh and The Concept of Grace.” It starts with an incident where a pilot (Captain Asoh) lands his perfectly good plane smack in the middle of San Francisco Bay rather than on a perfectly good runway. Investigators ask him why. His reply is worth the price of the book. In addition, you’ll learn what Harvey, a savvy psychologist, thinks about honesty and risk-taking in organizations.

  • There are four other meditations:
  • Management and The Myth of Abraham: Or, Go Plant a Cabbage On God’s Behalf
  • Eichmann and The Organization
  • Group Tyranny and The Gunsmoke Phenomenon
  • Encouraging Future Managers to Cheat

That last meditation is also a favorite of mine. Harvey observed something that the leadership literature is just now getting around to. Most of our hiring and leadership development is based on the unspoken assumption that the way to have successful teams and companies is to stock them with top individual performers. Boris Groysberg’s research on leadership portability is only one study that confirms what Harvey noticed thirty years ago.

Bottom Line

This is a delightful read, but don’t mistake delightful for lightweight. This is not a book you want to pick up if you want something quick. Even after I had been over every essay in this book several times since I first purchased it, I still find myself reflecting on Harvey’s observations and therefore taking some time to finish every meditation.

But, if you want powerful insight and potent wisdom in a pleasant package, buy, read, and apply The Abilene Paradox.


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