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On the Road to Abilene: A Parable

September 16, 2009
by Pete Rivera
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I was at a meeting the other day and someone mentioned that they should not all go “On the Road the Abilene.” Apparently it was a term used in that organization, but they did not know the origin. The Road to Abilene is Dr. Jerry B. Harvey's parable about a family trip to Abilene.

They were sitting around on the porch in Coleman, Texas. The temperature was 104 degrees, but the porch was shaded, and everyone was comfortable. Then, Jerry Harvey's father-in-law said, "Let's get in the car and go to Abilene and have dinner at the cafeteria." In the back of Jerry's mind a little voice said, "This is nuts. I don't want to travel 53 miles in the heat of summer in a 1958 Buick to have dinner in a lousy cafeteria."

But Jerry's wife said, "It sounds like a great idea." And Jerry heard himself saying, "Sounds good to me. I hope your mother wants to go." And Jerry's mother said, "Of course I want to go." Four hours and 106 miles later, they returned. The heat had been brutal. Of course there was no air conditioning in the car. Perspiration and dust stuck to their clothing and bodies. The food, as Jerry guessed, had been awful.

Later that evening Jerry said, sarcastically, "It was a great trip wasn't it." Nobody spoke. Finally, his mother in law said, "To tell the truth, I really didn't enjoy it much. I would rather have stayed home, and I wouldn't have gone at all if you hadn't pressured me into it." To which Jerry responded, "I didn't pressure you. I was happy here. I only went to make the rest of you happy." His wife said, "You and Dad and Mamma were the ones who wanted to go. I just wanted to make you happy." And his father in law said, "I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored sitting at home with the rest of us."

So, they all made a 106 mile round trip in the God forsaken desert under furnace-like conditions to eat unpalatable food in a dingy cafeteria, a trip nobody had been looking forward to and nobody wanted to take. The concept is simple, and it is one that was attributed to the Challenger disaster, “Group Think.”

How many times have you been in a meeting and a senior VP says, “It would be great if…” This leads to analysis, vendor research and before long, a project is born. Nobody wanted say it was a dumb idea, or we should not launch this new initiative because we have other things on our plate that will interfere with its success. People just watch and hope that somebody else is going to speak out. Fortunately in the meeting I was in, someone remembered the long road to Abilene, before they took the trip.

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My other favorite is Dr. Massey. His theory was that, what you are today is based on how we were imprinted through age 7. Anything after that had to be changed by a "significant emotional event."
As a parent I had to be the one to deliver that "significant emotional event" way to often during those teen years.

Pete, since you brought up the topic of imprinting, emotional events and parenting, I just finished reading a new book exactly on that topic.  It's brilliant, although would appeal best to people who enjoy abstract thinking required to do systems thinking.  After I finished it, a bought a bunch of copies for my like-minded friends.

Francois was pretty explicit about parenting his teens. 

At one point, he was the CEO of a division of a company where I worked.  He had to parent a bunch of employees who needed some adult supervision ... like me!  Put differently, coaching and in some cases mentoring should be a routine part of a managers responsibilities.  All-to-often in business, it doesn't happen.

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Thanks for the post.

Nice flavor saver Pete.

I've been to a few lectures by Jerry Harvey.

My favorite term from Harvey is anaclytic depression. That's the experience when your superior in an organization not only doesn't add value to your work. He reduces the value, usually through what amounts to harmful meddling.

Another one of those all-too-common experiences most people share when the management hierarchy doesn't work.

Pete Rivera

Director Informatics, Hayes Management Consulting

Pete Rivera

@Gator_Pete

www.Hayesmanagement.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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