Home The Abilene Paradox and Military Decision Making

The Abilene Paradox and Military Decision Making

The Abilene Paradox is a decision making mystery, which can be easy to comprehend but difficult to resolve. The term was first coined by management professor Jerry B Harvey, Professor Emeritus at the George Washington University in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox - The Management of Agreement”. He used a simple parable of a family in Texas who travel to Abilene town for dinner, in spite of the fact that individually, none of them were keen to make the uncomfortable journey and experience the insipid food. They however all agree to the proposition falsely believing that the others are keen on the trip and each member did not want to make the other unhappy. An analogous term used to describe the phenomena is ‘groupthink’. The paradox emerges when there are multiple stakeholders to a decision who are individually fully capable of arriving at a well analysed and considered decision. However, when confronted with a group environment, each stakeholder is hesitant to express his/her position, primarily under the false impression that his/her position may be against the organizational or group opinion. Hence in order not to ‘seem out of place’, the stakeholder pulls back on his/her opinion, which paradoxically the group session was intended to achieve in the first place. The term is management related and is commonly ascribed to business and industry, however its occurrence is equally frequent within small families and other closely knit organizations.

Abilene Paradox in the Military

The military is all about teams and team work. The need to be ‘a useful member of the team’ is drilled into every soldier from the very initial stages of training to retirement and beyond. This proclivity for moving along with the team could arguably be a significant contributing factor to Abilene Paradox in military decision making. The Indian Army strategic decision making apparatus increasingly depends on collegiate decisions especially those dealing with multiple directorates/branches and the Ministry of Defence. However, there is a pertinent need to analyse such collegiate decisions through the prism of the Abilene Paradox. The case for induction of new small arms into the Indian Army readily comes to mind. This decision taken collectively more than a decade back has come in for severe criticism from all quarters in the recent past. The decision pertained to the proposed induction of small arms with interchangeable barrels and a single platform capability to fire multiple caliber ammunition. At that point of time, it appeared as a revolutionary new idea and came in for considerable appreciation from the observers at large. However, as the details emerged gradually, the entire concept proved impractical, financially non viable and ultimately led to the scrapping of the project. It is hard to believe that none amongst the large body of stakeholders, experts and professionals who were part of the decision making process could anticipate the fragility of the decision. Or was it a case of groupthink falling victim to the Abilene Paradox? Individually perhaps many within the collegiate decision making body were able to see through the incorrect choice, but kept the thoughts to oneself for the fear of ‘rocking the boat’.

The moot question which emerges is that given the hierarchical and protocol bounded organizational environment which exists in the military, is Abilene Paradox a decision making challenge which requires a deliberate and structured counter strategy? Can we devise a framework by which we can prevent a group of well intentioned ‘team members’ from taking an unintended incorrect decision which is ironically driven by the ubiquitous ‘team spirit’ of the military?

Characteristics of the Military making it prone to Abilene Paradox

Certain peculiar characteristics can be identified in militaries which make them prone to the Abilene Paradox. These characteristics are entirely related to organizational dynamics and are seldom individual or personality driven. Hence the effects may be difficult to pick up and identify in large organizations like the military.

  • Short appointment tenures and the ambiguous stake in decision making is an important factor. There is an unmistakable propensity to examine individual commitment to a contentious decision, against the backdrop of time. Any decision which does not have an immediate impact could be relegated to the background and individual stakeholders may shift the onus on someone else.
  • Upsetting the applecart is considered sacrilege in military decision making, especially the decisions dealing with organisational continuity. Legacy decisions are invariably given primary consideration, hence stakeholders to a decision find it convenient not to ‘stick their neck’ out and just go along with the established norms.
  • Militaries pride themselves with quick decision making. Any stakeholder who intends to offer a contrary view point is often saddled with the apprehension that his/her opinion could result in a delay in the final decision, since it could lead to further analysis and data collection. Hence it is not uncommon to find stakeholders avoiding or sidelining the really contentious issues.
  • Most military organizations have a clearly defined hierarchy and, while there may be multiple stakeholders to a decision, the identity of the primary decision maker where the ‘buck stops’ is never in doubt. This at times is in sharp contrast to decision making in business and industry where boards, committees and trusts are positioned at the apex level. Hence there is an inadvertent feeling within military stakeholders that his/her viewpoint has miniscule significance and hence there is a tendency to hold back. At every point in the decision making cycle, subordinate stakeholders are eager to get a feel of the primary decision maker’s mind and they quickly adapt their own opinion in support.
  • Militaries around the world have been blamed for anti intellectualism[i]. This arguably is a receding trend, however stakeholders offering erudite views which may be off-center or different are at times perceived as bureaucratic and pedantic.
  • The much maligned ‘Zero Mistake Syndrome’ is an offshoot of the ‘Zero Defect Policy’, which militaries across the globe should possibly be proud of. The zero defect policy can be attributed to multiple checks and quality control routines in the manufacturing of sophisticated military hardware, where even a small slip up was not acceptable. This propensity of micro management and multiple checks gradually spread to other functions of the military. Sometimes military decisions also fall prey to this syndrome, where fear of making a mistaken recommendation prevents a stakeholder from expressing oneself. The old adage ‘safety lies in silence’ can be aptly used to describe such a predicament.
  • Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the deep seated inclination of ‘not offending the hierarchy’. The leadership and the hierarchy may well be perfectly open to every opinion of even a minor stakeholder; however organizational dynamics and military customs prevent a free flowing articulation of the same.

The arguments presented above should however not be construed as a doomsday scenario where every multiple stakeholder decision is prone to inconsistencies. More often than not, the paradoxes of groupthink are countered by the military leader by nurturing a lively and free exchange of ideas within the organization. Moreover the Abilene Paradox seldom affects combat decisions where the reliance on the group is minimal. The leader invariably depends on experience and intuitive skills while taking quick combat related decisions. The category of decisions which could however be affected are decisions related to logistics support, perspective plans, force restructuring, induction of weapon systems, relocation of units, creation of infrastructure etc., which are generally collegiate decisions involving a large and diverse set of players.

Frustration Cycle

An extreme manifestation of the Abilene Paradox setting into an organization could be the generation of a frustration cycle, where the members completely lose faith in the decision making process. In case stakeholders do not express their views freely, their viewpoints are never considered in the decision making process. More often than not such members leave the conference or meeting feeling dissatisfied and frustrated. This feeling further manifests into a cocoon mentality. Hence the frustration cycle accentuates and exasperates, leading to a dysfunctional organizational decision making process. A clear indicator of the situation is when a sprinkling of cynical comments is seen from organisational members, in informal settings outside the main decision making body. This situation though rare, cannot be completely negated. Identification of such an environment can be extremely tricky from within the same organization. It can be more easily and better perceived by an external agency, an observer or a member who has recently joined the organization.

A Counter to the Abilene Paradox

Timely identification and an elegant counter to the paradox can be a challenge as it may be difficult to convince the decision making team that they have been a part of a problem, since individually every member is well meaning and loyal to the organization. Hence there is a pertinent need to be subtle and diplomatic. The counter strategy could be analysed under the following factors.

  • Leadership. 

In the military, the leadership is designated clearly and is indeed the most important factor which can induce the ‘right organizational climate’. This arguably is the most important factor which can counter the paradox. Collegiate decisions involving all possible stakeholders, is not the panacea for all complex and critical decisions. Clearly there is a very important role to be played by direct ‘one on one’ interaction between the leader and an individual stakeholder. This aspect may get pushed to the background especially in cases where the stakeholders belong to different headquarters, branches and directorates. The other aspects which get neglected are the informal feedback route and the traditional method of seeking written recommendations. Often, during large collegiate meetings, verbal feedback gets primacy and seldom is an opinion or the lack of it, attributed to the concerned stakeholder in documents. Hence the leadership needs to keep multiple feedback channels open and create a climate for free and frank input. Leaders could avoid staff presentations which may inadvertently indicate an implied viewpoint at the start of a collegiate meeting. In fact, it would not be a bad practice if the leader joins the meet only at the last stage, where the principle staff officer has already obtained necessary stakeholder inputs.

  • Stakeholders.  

There is a very urgent need for all military stakeholders to take ownership of the decision.  In case a stakeholder feels that he/she is disturbed or dissatisfied with the decision and yet he/she has not expressed an opinion or a viewpoint, the alarm bells should start ringing. At this stage an informal interaction with the leader, staff or other stakeholders will be immensely useful.

  • Higher Headquarters.       

External agencies especially representatives from higher headquarters can invariable offer free and frank opinion without seeming to ‘rock the boat’. There is a need to deliberately identify and include such external representatives even in case the problem appears obvious and in house. Professionally constituted Red Teams, whose sole task is to ‘pick holes’ in any proposed decision, have also found relevance in some large organisations and militaries.

  • Procedural Aspects.    

‚ÄčIn spite of the best efforts, organizational paradoxes can resurface innocuously and silently.  Hence the best method to counter such paradoxes is to identify simple procedures and drills at staff level. For e.g., a deliberate exercise could be done after each collegiate meeting wherein the staff takes a written and anonymous feedback from all stakeholders on the decision taken. In case the feedback indicates a negative pattern, this aspect could be flagged up to the leadership.


“Our organization is a great team hence we possibly cannot be affected by the Abilene Paradox”. Such a statement is difficult to oppose as the Abilene Paradox is eminently counter intuitive. However the same statement, in certain cases, could be far from the truth. There is a need to realize that in close knit organizations like the military, team work and dissent can go hand in hand. A vibrant organization needs to wholeheartedly support constructive dissent at all levels. With the increasingly uncertain future, complex decision making challenges, interconnected nature of warfare and burgeoning stakeholders, future generations of military leaders could have to contend with this challenge in far greater degree than today. 


[i] https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2014/1/14/anti-intellectualism-in-the-army-the-bureaucracy-or-the-people


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Subhasis Das
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