Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Road is Very Well-Paved

I am a huge fan of the Abilene Paradox which was groundbreaking about forty 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've worked for folks who've summed this concern up 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 felt for years that 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. And if you think I'm typing about "Derbygate," you're not wrong.

Harvey's other 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 could (not will, only could) 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 because 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 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 here in my Abilene, in addition to Derbygate, we are the proud owners of a building in our downtown (that is very much the former and not so much the latter), Reid & Hughes, whose rehabilitation has been a top three topic of local conversation every day for the twenty-five and one-half years I've lived here. It's almost like Willy Wonka's Everlasting Gobstopper because every time our city council almost makes a decision on the building, it changes its mind. Different City Council's over the year, same situation. We're currently back to 'let's save it' (from 'let's raze it' sixty days ago) and of course this time we mean it. (Just as we did last time.)

At some point down the road, I'm not clear if it will happen before the November Council elections or if the building will again be a campaign issue, when the Chelsea Renaissance is no further along than it was the last time we talked about it, because of as-yet-undiscovered defects in another yet-to-be-seen plan for downtown (that was privately developed and sprung on everyone) which all will publicly embrace but privately despair of, we here in our Abilene will still be talking about the day we were going to make jet fuel from peanut oil but didn't. And that's exactly how we want it to stay.
-bill kenny

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