Utopian or idealized goal setting

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“If a terrible simplificateur is someone who sees no problem where there is one, his philosophical antipode is the utopian who see a solution where there is none… [Upotian] extremism in solving human problems seems to occur most frequently as a result of the belief that one has found (or even can find) the ultimate, all-embracing solutions. Once somebody holds this belief, it is then logical for him to try to actualize this solution – in fact, he would not be true to his self if he did not.” – Change by Paul Watzlawick

Have you ever sat in strategic planning, problem-solving, or leadership development meeting and were asked to create your ideal future? Then from the perfect future, asked to determine how to close the gap to achieve this utopian endpoint of the organization or yourself?

This utopian or idealized redesign or gap model facilitation feels good and, at the time, makes sense. However, it does not work as promised, and when the leader or facilitator leaves, the idealized plans never get accomplished; most of the time, they rarely start.

What is wrong with utopian or idealized planning?

“When we agree upon an idealized endpoint, all the focus is on moving grabbing the goal. We fail to recognize that we learn while making progress at the moment. This dream state shows a lack of respect for the expertise that brought you to where you are and makes the pain of never reaching this ideal more painful. All of this reinforces change resistance and change fatigue.” 


Maladies of Utopian Planning
Introjective disengagement:
  • When the goal is utopian, setting it creates a situation where the goal’s unattainability is not likely to be blamed on its utopian nature but rather on one’s incapacity. Within organizations, when setting these goals, everyone feels high and optimistic. Just as quickly, people return to their routines, and the good feelings wear off. When optimism is brought back to reality, the banality of work and the felt helplessness to make a difference return, and people find themselves even colder and less motivated, reinforcing disengagement and change resistance.
“It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive”
  • It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive – Rather than ruminating on the frustration of not being able to affect a utopian goal, the company engages in a playful form of procrastination. Being that the goal is distant, the path is long, and the preparation is arduous – the question of whether the goal can be reached or, if reached, will it be worth all the effort is ignored. This form of utopianism becomes problematic when you and your teammates expect to “arrive” or accomplish the goal instead of viewing work and development as an ongoing process. When the arrival is expected to happen with little pain in the transition, the joy and pleasure in describing the utopian endpoint are forgotten. With turmoil through changes to current practices, the procrastination of utopia increases until a new dream or end state is devised, and everyone can go back to procrastinating while they complete their actual work.
Projective – those that disagree are my enemy
  • When a leadership team develops a utopian goal, they come to believe, with missionary zeal, that they have the “truth” and want to change the world through this knowledge and goal. The proselytization begins with meetings and repetition often seen in banners, slogans, and luncheons where the CEO and leadership team share their vision. This vision is a better workplace with all the accouterments – and it sounds somewhat magical and makes you feel good. Consequently, the resistance or naysayers to this leadership workplace dreamland are seen as deviants or disengaged, or low performers, and their destruction or minimized impact though not being invited to meetings and being left out of communication, are justified.
What else can I do when the utopian strategic planning process does not work?

Start with what you got.

  1. Inventory what you are doing, data capturing, what people are sharing, and how they are sharing. What is the current landscape?
  2. Share this landscape with everyone in the company and ask, What are we missing? Is this what you currently do? What steps are we forgetting?
  3. As a team, identify what you want to keep doing, plus why you want to keep doing it. Identify what you want to stop doing and why you want to stop doing it.
  4. Compare what you are doing to what you are mandated to do (required by external governing bodies)… consider whether you need to keep doing those things the way we are currently doing them.
  5. Identify what you want to do more of and differently.
  6. Work to create small experiments to make changes from #5.
  7. Encourage people doing the work to monitor what they are doing from #6 and ask themselves, What about what we are doing? Do we want to keep doing it? What about what we are doing do we want to stop doing? Create a way to document and chart responses.
  8. If it is useful, return to #1 and start again.