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What is the Abilene Paradox and its impact to projects?

Posted by Adrian M.

Article Rating // 5965 Views // 0 Additional Answers & Comments

Categories: Leadership & Management, Elicitation (BABOK KA), Enterprise Analysis (BABOK KA)


The Abilene Paradox is that phenomenon which occurs when a group of people make a decision together which is counter to what the majority of the individuals or the group actually think or want. 

It's an example of negative groupthink and communication breakdown which occurs when individual members of the group believe that their own opinion or preference is counter to what the group wants, without realizing that others are thinking the same way.

The Abilene Paradox can occur in the most polite and civil environments where each group member may mistakenly assume that the group wants and chose to not raise any objections in order to not "rock the boat".

This phenomenon was first introduced by Jerry B. Harvey in an article titled "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement".  Oddly enough, what Harvey noticed is that this occurs when the group is ineffective at managing agreement.  Unlike managing disagreement when a group can't figure out how to come to a resolution or compromise, the Abilene Paradox occurs when individual members of a group do not raise concerns about the group decision even though, deep down, they do not agree with it.

What is the Abilene Paradox its impact to projects?

So how can the Abilene Paradox impact your project?

Imagine a business analyst, on a large software development project, simply jotting down a critical decision or important requirement decided by a group of stakeholders against common sense and against the individual stakeholders judgement and expertise.  Imagine that requirements is now implemented and deployed to production only to find out that's not what anybody wanted.  

  • If you had the feeling and thoughts that it's the wrong decision, would you go against the grain and raise your hand?
  • Do you have what it takes to question the expertise of the subject matter experts?
  • How can you spot and avoid falling in the trap of the Abilene Paradox?

Avoiding the Abilene Paradox

As a business analyst, you need to recognize that agreement is not always good - especially when the problem is complex yet the agreements develops very quickly.   Before we can avoid it, we must first understand why the Abilene Paradox occurs.  Here are a some of the reasons:

  • Fear of being wrong - what if my idea is a bad one?
  • Fear of rejection - what if they don't like my idea?
  • Laziness to fight for a point of view - well, if that's what everybody wants, it's fine with me?
  • Fear of conflict - the team is working so well together, I don't want to be the one causing conflict?

To avoid falling into the Abilene trap, the business analyst should:

  • Look for and recognize when complex decisions are made in record time without disent.
  • Have one-on-one conversations with individuals from the group to get their opinion on the decision
  • Ask the group: "What would others think of this decision?"
  • Ask the group: "Do you see any issues with this decision?"
  • Encourage open communication to ensure everyone's opinion is heard.
  • Reward and recognize dissenting opinions and thoughts.



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Do your homework prior to the business analysis interview!

Having an idea of the type of questions you might be asked during a business analyst interview will not only give you confidence but it will also help you to formulate your thoughts and to be better prepared to answer the interview questions you might get during the interview for a business analyst position.  Of course, just memorizing a list of business analyst interview questions will not make you a great business analyst but it might just help you get that next job.



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