The Abilene Gorilla: Going with the flow isn’t always

I flung my door open only just catching it before it slammed into the wall and left a hole I wouldn’t want to explain later. Resisting the urge to throw my notebook across the room I stomped towards my desk, registering the presence of Hogarth decimating my newest fichus tree.

For once I was almost happy to see Hogarth. Almost happy. At least I had someone I could complain to. “We are so doomed,” I said as I tossed myself into my chair. It gave a whimpered protest, at the abuse,  though held together in the end.

Hogarth raised one eyebrow, which for a being with a monobrow that was no small achievement. “The Mayan’s were right?”

I leaned back in my chair, throwing an arm over my eyes to blot out the light. “We should be so lucky. At least if the world ended I wouldn’t have to watch our profits tank faster than skydiver who forgot his parachute.” The deafening silence that greeted my answer  eventually caused me to peak out from under my arm and make sure Hogarth was still there. He was, just staring at me with those impassive brown eyes.

Sigh, here we go again. “The president just decided we should do a radical pivot of our business model. It’s absolutely insane and it’s going to kill our business. All you have to do is look at the recent customer feedback to know it was a bad idea.”

Hogarth carefully set the denuded fichus branch down before speaking. “Well did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Did he look at the customer feedback?” Hogarth asked.

I tossed my hands up in the air, “I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”

Hogarth cocked his head to the side, “Why not? Wasn’t this a strategic brainstorming meeting? You all meet to throw out ideas and see what sticks.”

I shook my head, “Hogarth, Hogarth, you don’t understand. The president asked ‘What about doing X?’ No one is going to argue with his idea, he’s the president.” Pointing at my chest I said , “It’s not my job to rock the boat .” 

“Isn’t it?”

“Stop playing twenty questions with me!” I snapped. “He’s the boss, we do what he says. He knows what he’s doing.”

“That doesn’t mean he thinks it’s a good idea. He’s the president, he has to look like he knows what he’s doing.”

I glared at Hogarth, “What’s the difference?”

Hogarth looked at me. “Ever been to Abilene?”


“The Abilene paradox is a paradox in which a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of any of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene paradox is a desire to not “rock the boat”.” – Wikipedia

The paradox reminds me of the lemming poster I used in “All the other Gorillas are Doing it” blog. The Abilene paradox is a solid reminder that no matter where the idea comes from, as a people or project manager, we can’t blindly assume that it is a “good” idea. If you have concerns it is your duty and responsibility  to raise those concerns. You can’t assume someone else will. Even in the most CEO dominated companies (can you say Apple?) it takes a team to design and build an idea.

But the nail that sticks out gets hammered down

Ah yes, the old Japanese proverb that espouses conformity and not making waves. Sure, no one wants to be the little kid who yells out that the Emperor has no clothes. Only ask yourself this, do you really want to be the Emperor’s servant when he finds out he’s been parading around in public without any clothes on? The problem with this approach, is what if there really is a squeaky wheel? If everyone chooses to ignore the squeak it doesn’t go away. Eventually the wheel seizes up and flies off. Then where are you?

Let’s instead look at another Japanese proverb, this one from Toyota. 

“Stop production so that production never has to stop.”   or, as the Toyota Production System sums is up,


This is what empowers every worker on a Toyota production line to be able to stop production if they see a problem. Not only do they have the ability, they are empowered and encouraged to use that ability. Every step of the way, assumptions are challenged and reality is tested. While Toyota has had some recent setbacks in quality, no one can deny their decades of stellar quality nor is their little doubt they will be returning to those quality roots. It is what has made them the brand and success they are and Jidoka is no small part of that.
So the next time something seems so obvious that everyone knows it, open your mouth and make sure everyone does know. Don’t end up going to Abilene when the restaurant down the street is what everyone really wanted.

Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email,
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

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