The Bus to Abilene

Dr. Janet Sawyer was meeting with the directors of the medical specialties for the first time. As a 20-year medic in the military, she had run a number of military hospitals. This was her first military position as the CEO of a community hospital.

She asked each of the directors for their priorities for the hospital, giving them time to write down their thoughts. After five minutes of writing, Dr. Wilson Plantee started the discussion: “We need to retrench on our remote trauma centers. These are very expensive and take medical staff out of the hospital.”

For the next 20 minutes, other directors echoed what Plantee had said. Dr. Sawyer noted that none of them were commenting on their own ideas.

Dr. Sawyer interrupted the comments and said, “I’m afraid we are taking the bus to Abilene.” The directors were confused by what she meant. Sensing their confusion, Dr. Sawyer explained. “The bus to Abilene phrase was something we used in the military. The afternoon was hot and a family in Coleman, Texas was playing dominoes. A senior member of the family suggests that they take a 50 mile bus ride to Abilene for dinner. His wife agrees but is really not that interested in a long drive just for dinner. Others come to agree, each with their own doubts. When they get to Abilene, the food isn’t that great. On the way home, they begin to complain about the trip and the waste of time for a bad meal. They begin to all realize that they agreed to the trip because they thought others wanted it.”

“When we started agreeing without thinking through what we were agreeing to, someone would say we were on a bus to Abilene. That would help us back away from group think. Let me make this clear, I want each of you to feel free to say what you really think.”

How often have each of us been on the bus to Abilene? We want to seem to be onboard when we really aren’t Maybe the leadership style discourages free thinking. Maybe we aren’t that confident in our own thoughts. Maybe we feel the social need to join with others. Whatever the reason being on a bus to Abilene is not healthy. The anecdote is to stop a meeting when you sense that group think has taken over and say: “We are on the bus to Abilene.”

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“If everybody is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton, Jr.


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