Tuesday, March 06, 2007
Walter Reed and the Abilene Paradox
The "Abilene Paradox" revolves around the fact that everyone in a group or organization is in such a state of agreement that they cannot manage needed change. As I watched the re-creation of the true story of the Abilene Paradox today, I thought that it probably applies in part to the Walter Reed hospital fiasco.
In our staff meeting today at work, we watching a very interesting re-enactment of a true story, narrated by the guy it happened to. He, his wife, and her parents were sitting in the sweltering heat playing dominoes, and obviously every one of them were bored and irritated at the current situation. The father-in-law suggested that they get in the car and drive to Abilene, Texas, 53 miles distant, to have dinner at a restaurant. The looks on the faces of all (even the father-in-law) suggested that, as bad as things were, none of them wanted to do it, but none felt comfortable speaking out. Such inability to speak out when it appears that all are in agreement has come to be known as the "Abilene Paradox."
Four or five hours later they returned from what every one of them had endured as a not-fun time. But it wasn't until they got back that they realized that no one had wanted to go, but that all felt pressured to toe the line of propriety.
So it goes in large organizations as well. I don't know much about the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, even though it's been in the news quite a bit lately. But I'll bet there were a lot of people who knew that things were wrong, and they didn't have the courage to speak out.
People are afraid to speak out because of the fears they conjure up about what might happen if they do divulge their feelings. Ironically, however, the ultimate result, is that much worse things do happen when people don't speak out.
In large organizations, when the poop ultimately hits the fan, everyone really knows it is going to hit and scatter everywhere, but they hope that they can either push the inevitable off as long as possible or avoid getting splattered on.
Part of the Abilene paradox is that when the splattering finally occurs, there is always a search for a scapegoat (ergo General Janice Karpinski as the fall gal for abu Ghraib). In reality, however, the problem is systemic, and the problem cannot be solved by blaming just one person. Most everyone knows what's going on, but doesn't speak out.
Those who have been scapegoated at Walter Reed thus far are responsible. But so are probably a lot of other people. I suspect that scapegoating won't fix the problem this time either. Honesty and speaking out will, however.