The Abilene effect (where a solution is adopted that no-one really favours, but no-one feels sufficiently opposed to, to go against the majority) happens remarkably frequently, even in high performing teams. It is actually quite easy to prevent, with the use of a simple procedure.

The starting point is to discuss the question: “What are we trying to achieve with this decision?” Or, to put it another way, “How does this decision align with our collective purpose?”

The second step is the question: “What are the key criteria we should apply to this decision?” There may be some disagreement, but it is normally possible to identify a small number of factors that everyone agrees are important. Issues that are important only to a few people are captured as a separate list.

The third step is to define clearly the alternative ways forward.  If there are no alternatives, this may be a sign that the issue has not been given enough consideration. On average, a decision based on two or more alternatives is more than half again as likely to be seen positively in retrospect, than one without any alternatives.

Now , taking each alternative in turn, everyone scores the items on these two lists, using the same scale, in answer to the question: “To what extent would this solution meet each of these criteria?”

Sharing the scores gives a reasonably accurate picture of the spread of opinion and why people are minded more towards one solution than another. It also increases the chances that potential downsides of each of the alternatives are brought into the open and discussed, so that the team can install appropriate contingency measures. And it makes sure that minority views and information held by only a few members are acknowledged and taken into account.

It may sound time consuming – and it is. But even more time consuming is unravelling poor decisions. In deciding whether to use this approach on a decision, therefore, one further question is helpful: “What is the potential cost (in times of money, time, energy and so on) of getting this wrong?”

Lastly, the backstop question: “How confident are we that this is a good decision?”. If team members are unsure, but still trying to maintain a sense of unity, an honest response here will enable the team to dig more deeply until there is genuine agreement.

Those six key questions again:

  • What is the potential cost (in times of money, time, energy and so on) of getting this wrong?
  • What are we trying to achieve with this decision?
  • What are the key criteria we should apply?
  • What alternatives are we looking at?
  • To what extent does each solution meet the criteria?
  • How confident are we that this is a good decision?


© David Clutterbuck, 2018

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