The quest for disruption, and the danger of The Abilene Paradox

—Lots of brands say they want to be game-changers, but stability and continuity are at the core of who they are, says Éric Blais—

How many times do you hear that a new approach will be game changing? Or that we need to challenge conventions to become true disruptors?

In an age where brands are furiously fighting for attention, the principles expounded by Jean-Marie Dru in his 1996 book Disruption, and Adam Morgan in his 1999 book Eating the Big Fish, provide invaluable lessons. Incidentally, Dru is chairman of TBWA, which brands itself as “The Disruption Company.” Both books delve deep into the world of innovative brand strategies, offering tools to brands hungry to rise above the noise.

Dru’s Disruption isn’t simply about “breaking the mold”—it’s a systematic approach to rethinking business strategies. It advocates for deviating from conventional norms, highlighting the need for brands to redefine their market strategies in ways that may appear counterintuitive at first.

Morgan’s Eating the Big Fish goes into the strategies that challenger brands, or those that do not dominate the market, can employ to compete with market leaders. Morgan highlights the boldness smaller brands need to take on the big players, offering insights on how they can differentiate and carve out their own niche.

While both authors advocate for radical shifts and groundbreaking approaches, providing fascinating insights and case studies to illustrate their points, there’s an underlying theme that organizations must grapple with: the reality of change.

These books, and others like them, are manifestos for the brave. But let’s be clear. It’s one thing to be brave, to have courage. It’s another to actually follow through.

There are, of course, brands that have integrated this audacious ethos into their very core. Virgin and its founder Richard Branson, for instance. When Virgin Mobile was introduced in Canada, the head of marketing was depicted urinating into a Bell phone booth in a cheeky magazine spread. This image was drenched in irony, considering that Virgin Mobile used Bell Mobility’s network.

It’s imperative for organizations to evaluate their intrinsic appetite for change before challenging the conventions. It’s about a fundamental shift in mindset, corporate culture, and often, a willingness to risk current comforts for future gains. While it’s tempting to be enticed by the promises of groundbreaking success, the journey requires conviction, resilience, and most importantly, the organizational backing to see it through.

Yet, in this fervour for change, organizations often fall into the trap of the Abilene Paradox.

The Abilene Paradox describes a common social situation where a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many or all of the individuals in the group. The term was introduced by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement.”

It is named after an anecdote that Harvey used to illustrate the concept. In the anecdote, a family is comfortably sitting on a porch in Coleman, Texas. The father suggests that they should drive to Abilene (a city about 53 miles away) for dinner. No one in the family really wants to go—they’d all prefer to stay home—but they all think that the others want to go. So, they all agree to go to Abilene, where they have a miserable time.

In essence, The Abilene Paradox leads to a situation in which a group makes a decision that none of its members is comfortable with.

To put this in context, imagine emerging from an extended business meeting, your mind buzzing with the decision that has just been made. Everyone appears “aligned,” but beneath the surface, there’s a distinct feeling of unease. A decision has been reached, yes, but it feels unrealistic and no one appears willing to wave a cautionary flag. This is a corporate manifestation of The Abilene Paradox. And it happens all the time, particularly when raising a red flag would make one seem unable or unwilling to think outside the box and push the envelope.

It also happens in organizations that talk about change but know very well that stability and continuity is at their core. It’s usually counterintuitive for the establishment to challenge the establishment. Some might remember an ad campaign for Bank of Montreal in the mid-nineties themed “Can a bank change?” Easier said than done.

So, before everyone jumps on the bandwagon to “break the mold,” pause and ask: Is the organization truly ready for change, or is it just another trip to Abilene in disguise? You could save yourself from a costly disappointment.

Eric Blais