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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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