Monday, June 6, 2016

False Consensus – Abilene Paradox

Musings of a Navy Veteran


“The Ship’s Anniversary is next month – any ideas how we should celebrate it…?” the newly appointed Captain asked his Heads of Department (HsOD) at the end of his first HsOD Meeting.

The ship was going to be 2 years old – so it was the ship’s second anniversary after commissioning.

The Captain was new – but all the Heads of Department (HsOD) – and all the other officers and sailors – they were all from the commissioning crew.

There was silence – each HOD was waiting for someone else to speak first.

Observing that the HsOD were silent – the Captain asked the Executive Officer (XO): “Okay – ‘Number 1’ – you tell me – how was it celebrated last year…?”

“Sir – last year was the first anniversary – so – we had a Grand Party on board – the C-in-C, Fleet Commander, Admiral Superintendent, all Commanding Officers and XOs, Headquarters’ Staff Officers and Senior Officers of shore establishments – Captains and above – and – various officers connected with the ship were invited…” the XO said.

In his mind – the XO recalled the nightmare getting the ship “shipshape” for the Anniversary Party – the “cleanship” – the painting – the “spit and polish” – the enormous physical effort put in by the sailors just for that one party.

And worse – this time – there was a long sailing – and – the ship would return to harbour just 3 days before the anniversary.

He would have to cancel the “liberty” (shore leave) and get all the sailors working on “cleanship” – the moment they got back to harbour.

The XO was a sensitive officer who cared for his men – and – he felt pity for the plight of his sailors who – despite being tired after a long sailing – instead of going ashore on liberty – would be deployed on the laborious job getting the ship ready for the grand anniversary party.

Postponing an “anniversary” party was out of the question – since – a ship’s anniversary is a sacrosanct day.

As far as the XO was concerned – in his mind – his frank opinion was – that instead of “punishing” the sailors by making them slog for the party immediately after returning from sailing – it would be best to scrap the grand anniversary party.

But – the XO kept his mouth shut – because – he was afraid that if he expressed his opinion about scrapping the anniversary party – he may look like a fool in front of the Captain and his fellow HsOD.

The Captain looked at the XO and said: “So – you feel that we should have a grand anniversary party like last year…?”

The XO nodded – and – he said: “Yes, Sir…”

The Captain looked at the other Heads of Department.

In their mind – the “Technical Heads of Department” felt the same way as the XO – their sailors would be tired after the long sailing – and – they would have to be immediately deployed for getting the ship ready for the party – “illuminate ship” – running of Machinery and Gensets to ensure there was no glitch during the party.

Like the XO – both the Technical HsOD – the Engineer Officer (EO) and Electrical Officer (LO) also felt that it would be best to scrap the grand anniversary party.

They thought about it.

The XO had said that he wanted a grand party – and – it seemed that the Captain too wanted an ostentatious anniversary party – since he was enquiring about the previous year’s party.

The Technical Heads of Department did not want to be seen as “dissenters” – so – they said to the Captain: “Yes, Sir – it would be a good idea to have a grand anniversary party like last year…”

The Captain looked at the Supply Officer (“Supply Officers” were later renamed as “Logistics Officers”).

The Supply Officer (SO) was also the Wardroom PMC (President Mess Committee) by virtue of being the senior-most officer in the Wardroom.

For the “Supply Officer” – it was a “double whammy” – since he was both SO and also the PMC. 

The ship would return to harbour just 3 days before the anniversary party – and – he would have to get the provisions – the food and drink – he would have to plan the menu – and – he would have to motivate the fatigued cooks and stewards who would be weary and exhausted after the long sailing. Being an “ethical officer” – he felt that such “grand parties” were unfair to the ship’s officers who would have to pay huge party shares in their mess bills. Also – one small “faux pas” during the party – and his ACR (Annual Confidential Report) would be on the line. Last year a dumb steward had served a prawns “small eat” to the “pure vegetarian” wife of an Admiral – and all hell broke loose – and – the Supply Officer was sure that the erstwhile Captain had not forgotten this gaffe when writing the Supply Officer’s ACR.

Like the other Heads of Department – in his mind – the Supply Officer was also not too keen on having a grand anniversary party.

(Of course – the Supply Officer did not know what was going in the minds of the others)

He thought about it.

The three other Heads of Department – the XO, EO and LO – all had said they wanted to have a grand anniversary party.

The Captain also seemed in favour of an ostentatious anniversary party.

The Supply Officer did not want to be the “lone dissenter” and appear to be a cynical naysayer “Killjoy”.

So – the Supply Officer said: “Yes, Sir – we should have a grand anniversary party like last year – even more impressive and grandiose than last year’s party.”

The Captain was happy that there was a “consensus” among all the Heads of Department.

(He had spent most of his Navy career in “Staff Jobs” – pushing files in the landlocked “Northern Naval Command” – and – he was a great believer in “participative decision-making”)

And so – a grand anniversary party was planned.

The hapless sailors were deployed on “clean-ship” and “paint-ship” immediately on arrival in harbour.

Of course – there was a symbolic perfunctory “cake cutting ceremony” where the Captain and Youngest Sailor cut the “Anniversary Cake” – but – this was just “tokenism” – and – all efforts were focused on the “Grand Anniversary Party” to be hosted by the Ship’s Officers for the Navy “Big Wigs”. 

With their “liberty” cancelled – the sailors cursed the “Ship’s Anniversary” while they physically slogged getting things “ship-shape” after the grueling sailing which had exhausted them.

While working alongside their demoralized sailors – the Ship’s Officers dreaded the huge “party share” for the anniversary party that would almost wipe out their next month’s earnings.

The Captain may score “Brownie Points” by having a grandiose anniversary party – but it was the ship’s officers who would be footing the bill as the “hosts”.

An occasion like Ship’s Anniversary is supposed to raise morale.

Instead – morale had plummeted.

What an irony…?

To make matters worse – the “Grand” Ship’s Anniversary Party was an unmitigated disaster.

Everything had gone wrong.

There was a “goof up” in protocol due to confusion in the inter-se seniority of two Rear Admirals – and the “senior” of the two – who had a bloated ego – claimed that he had been intentionally accorded “shabby treatment” because he was a Technical Admiral – and – he had privately made it known to the XO that he would take his “revenge” and “fix” the Captain and the XO.

To add the woes – the Electric Power Supply tripped thrice during the Party causing chaos.

As if that was not enough – in a repeat performance from last year’s – the dumb steward served “fish tikka” small eats to a “pure vegetarian” Commodore and his wife – who almost threw up when they realized they were eating fish.

(The steward had told them it was “paneer tikka” – from the outside it looked like paneer tikka – and – it was only when the guests took a bite that they realized they were eating fish).

The Engineer Officer got gloriously drunk – and – he made a spectacle of himself – swaying from side to side and cracking indecent jokes in a loud voice – and then – when restrained by the Doctor – he smashed his fist into the face of the Doctor and knocked him out cold.

A rival Captain from the Fleet – after enjoying the best of Scotch Whisky and stuffing himself with Food – he wondered why this ship was observing the Ship’s Anniversary on such a “grand scale” when “austerity measures” were in place – and – he even “boasted” that – to observe austerity – he had cancelled his ship’s anniversary party and had just a small cake-cutting ceremony.

This rival Captain sarcastically commented that this ship’s Captain who was now celebrating his ship’s anniversary with full gusto in an ostentatious manner on such a grand scale – this same Captain – when in NHQ – had issued a letter advising “austerity” in ceremonials and celebrations – thereby implying that the host Captain was a hypocrite. (Of course – he made these nasty comments in full hearing of the “powers-that-be”).

When things start going wrong – there is a snowballing effect – and – there was a series of blunders and “foul ups” – even the food was terrible – and the dessert turned out to be a disaster.

Not only was the Anniversary Party an unmitigated disaster – but it had caused all-round demoralization and cynicism – a totally wasted effort and counterproductive enterprise.

In a nutshell – to put it euphemistically in “Catch-22 Style” – instead of being a glorious “feather in his cap” – the grand anniversary party had turned out to be a terrible “black eye” for the Captain.


Next morning – the Captain held a “post mortem” meeting with his Heads of Department in his cabin.

The Captain said: “It would have been better if we had not had such a grand anniversary party. In fact – it would have been best if we did not have a party at all.”

“Exactly Sir – those were my thoughts too…” the XO said, “but I thought that you very much desired to have a grand extravagant party so – as XO – I did not want to let you down by dissenting with you. But now – I agree with you that it would have been best if we had scrapped the party.”

The EO said: “Yes, Sir – I also was against have a party – I too thought that there was no point wasting so much effort. But I thought that since you and the XO were so enthusiastic to have a grand anniversary party – I didn’t want to be a “killjoy” – so I too went along with you.

The LO said: “Sir, I was apprehensive about the ship’s generators – and – I too did not want to have an anniversary party – but – I did not want appear as a negative “spoilsport” when I saw that all of you were so eager to have a grand party.”  

The SO said: “Sir, I was totally against having a grand party – I was apprehensive that it would turn out to be flop show. But when I saw that everyone was so keen to have a grand party – I did not want to be the sole “naysayer” – so – I too went along with popular opinion.”

All of them – the Captain and the Heads of Department – they were all perplexed.

In their mind – none of them wanted to have a grand anniversary party – but – no one had voiced his frank opinion because each one mistakenly thought that the others wanted to have the grand anniversary party – and each one wanted to “please” the others and did not want to be the “odd man out”.

Thus – they developed a “false consensus”.

The “actual consensus” (in the minds of everyone) was not to have a party.

But – due to the “Abilene Paradox” – a “false consensus” emanated to have a grand anniversary party which  in actual fact  not even a single officer wanted to have.

I saw plenty of examples of the “Abilene Paradox” in the Navy – and – in personal relationships too – where such “false consensus” develops because everyone wants to go along with what they mistakenly believe is “popular opinion” – and – no one wants to “rock the boat” or appear as the “odd man out” by expressing his frank opinion.

How do you steer clear of the “Abilene Paradox” and avoid “False Consensus”…?

It is very simple – and – obvious.

Each one of us must frankly express our opinions – you must speak out what is in your mind – without bothering about what others will think.

Of course – for everyone to be able to express his frank opinion – you must have conducive environment for encouraging free speech – which may not exist in many organizations – especially – in the military – where dissent and contrarian views are frowned upon – and there exists a traditional culture of conformance and “forced unanimity”.

In the Military – individuals are reluctant to publicly say what they privately believe in – especially if the feel that their own views are contrary to the prevailing opinion.

The phenomenon of “False Consensus” thrives in the Military thanks to the “Abilene Paradox”.

Dear Reader – Do you know why this Paradox is called the “Abilene Paradox”…?

I will tell you that and much more about the “Abilene Paradox” in subsequent Blog Posts.

Till then – do think of situations where you observed the “Abilene Paradox”. 

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1. This story is a spoof, satire, pure fiction, just for fun and humor, no offence is meant to anyone, so take it with a pinch of salt and have a laugh.
2. All Stories in this Blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the stories are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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