The word ‘utopia’ conjures many things in many places.
I know it’s been referred to occasionally in training workshops I have delivered over the years from the perspective of groups aiming for some form of utopian result, eg perfect teamwork, perfect communication, perfect goal-setting, etc.
In a strictly definitive sense, utopia means “… an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect.” This, of course, is compared with dystopia.
We have all imagined a perfect world in which there are no problems, and everything works as it should. But… is this the type of world our groups are actually trying to create?
Or, as discovered recently, is ‘optopia’ the term we are searching for?
In a recent podcast, Kim Stanley Robinson (a climate/sci-fi writer) discussed his latest book, in which he imagines a world facing climate catastrophe and mass extinction.
He used a word first attributed to Johanna Russ – optopia – that, to me, describes more accurately the aspirations of most of the groups we work with – the optimum they can do given the situation they’re handed.
Aiming for a utopian result is often fool-hardy. No matter how hard our groups work towards a perfect world (whatever that may embrace), they are highly unlikely ever to achieve this lofty goal. They are effectively setting themselves up for failure.
And as educators, are we okay with this? I’m not.
Now, none of this should excuse the efforts of our groups (or, indeed, our facilitation) to achieve the best results they can. But at best, these results are better described as optopian because they reflect the best the group can achieve given the facts of their situation.
What Does Optopia Look Like?
Optopia must look different for every group because every group starts from a unique position and reflects many different variables.
But I do know what it can sound like. For example, have you ever watched your group go “for the perfect try.?” You know, those efforts to plan to the nth degree and not execute anything until the group thinks everything is perfect and ready to go.
I see this all the time. And, more often than not, it ends in tears.
Honestly, aiming for perfect is a fool’s errand. Your group will never get there. This is more pressure to perform than any group should willingly choose to bear.
To this end, I think we have a responsibility – as educators and facilitators – to help our groups embrace an optopian perspective, ie to make the best of the resources, ideas and options available to them, and nothing more.
This situation is akin to opening the fridge door and expecting to produce a delicious 5-course gourmet meal (a utopian vision) when only last week’s shopping remnants remain on the shelf. Rather, the optopian vision would be to blend the available ingredients with the chef’s skills and the kitchen’s utensils to produce a meal.
Let’s be honest – not every group we work with will ever come close to the nirvana of productivity and performance they wish for. Better to help them make a difference with the resources and talent that they have at their disposal, than to lead them down the path to disappointment.
Towards Continuous Improvement
Next time you work with a group looking to continuously improve their performance, consider motivating them to work towards – not a utopia or a dystopia but an optopia.
What do you think?
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