Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hunted like a crocodile, ravaged in the corn

I am a huge fan of the Abilene Paradox which was groundbreaking some thirty years ago in explaining, or attempting to, how groups and organizations undertake actions that are counter to the desires of those who are in those very groups. I have two VHS cassettes (yeah, I am old-school), one with a 'bootleg' version of the original lecture Dr. Jerry Harvey delivered at American University in D.C., shot from a shaky camera in the balcony as he stalked around the stage with a hand-held mike with a soft Texas accent and sharp sense of the absurd.

He spoke for almost ninety minutes on the tape I have (which at times loses the video control track causing the picture to roll and in some places be nothing more than 'noise' (=snow on the screen)) and he never lost a member of the audience or failed to make his point or any of its corollaries. He was concerned with what I recall as the lack of forgiveness for mistakes, which is as true today as it was at the time he stood on stage. I work for folks who've summed this concern up somewhat inelegantly as 'One 'oh shit!' wipes out a 1000'attaboys!' In America, he noted, the first public mistake is nearly always the last one as no one is prepared to forgive, much less forget, a previous failure or allow someone who has failed the opportunity for redemption. I've often felt Search for the Guilty is akin to his premise, since so often I've watched, and participated in, these witch hunts, instead of fixing a problem.

Harvey's other major premise was the pervasive power of the fear of negative consequences. He described a social interaction that hinges on one party being willing to take a step and make a decision that will set off a chain of events, some of whose consequences may not be well-received. His concern was that often, within the group dynamic that gets us all to Abilene, the effort becomes to persuade the decision maker that possible consequences outweigh probably benefits so that NOTHING is accomplished. The beauty of this, he pointed out, is when this happens, every other person in the group is absolved of ANY responsibility for what doesn't get achieved since after all, they didn't make any decisions at all, right?

I live in Abilene and if you've watched the tape, or I should say 'the program' because it's on DVD and probably soon on BLURAY-DVD, you live there as well. I don't care what it says on your driver's license, or how the address on your mail reads. When we become comfortable with group think to the point where NOT thinking like everyone else makes you a suspect, welcome to Abilene.

And in my Abilene, we may, or may not, ever construct a new animal shelter, a/k/a dog pound, for a sum we'll need to bond to afford. We'll also continue to discuss whether we should expand our inventory of 'supportive housing', though one resident at a Norwich City Council meeting last night referred to people who need such housing as 'miscreants' and the 'state's problem' after comparing them to stray animals that 'if you feed 'em they'll never leave.' (which ties nicely back into Dr. Harvey's point about the lack of forgiveness in America).

And here in my Abilene, we are the proud owners of a building in our downtown (that is very much the former and not so much the latter), whose acquisition for the nearly seventeen years I've lived here, was considered so critical to the redevelopment of an inner city that died in the 1950's , it's become an article of faith (as in, 'next year, Jerusalem'): we've had 'if only we owned the Reid and Hughes....'. As a matter of fact, one of those on the City Council was quoted in this morning's newspaper as saying , "This is history....(T) his is the last building in that corridor that we can probably market for our renaissance." From your lips to God's ear. because here's what I fear:

In two years, when the Renaissance is no further along than the revolution that supposedly led it and fed it, because of as-yet-undiscovered defects in the yet-to-be-seen vision for downtown, we here in our Abilene will still be talking about the day we were going to make jet fuel from peanut oil.
Come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm.
-bill kenny

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