Spinning Planning Experience into Practical Wisdom

How can a planner translate professional experiences into practical wisdom? Unfortunately, practical wisdom does not automatically accrue with time — the translation requires active reflection. With reflection, planners develop a storehouse of practical wisdom that supports real-time practice decisions.

Let’s start with two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Your community plan is well received and unanimously adopted. You and your team are praised, and the project receives an APA award.

Scenario 2: Your community plan is ignored for a time, and when it reaches decision makers, it is rejected. You and your team are scapegoated for failure to get the plan adopted.

Both scenarios are experiences. Taken at face value, we seek to avoid the second scenario and achieve the first one. Yet each experience, good and bad, has lessons that can be gleaned through after-the-fact reflection.

I contend that planning experiences don’t mean much without deliberate reflection and interpretation.

Reflection involves many useful questions: Why was one planning effort successful and another one not? Was success or failure attributable to the planner’s actions, or beyond them? Were particular decisions or actions instrumental in the outcome?

Here, I draw on Donald Schön’s distinction between reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection-on-action is after-the-fact reflection in which we reconstruct what happened, organize it, and seek lessons for the future. Reflection-in-action involves observing how we think and act in during a planning assignment. Reflection-in-action can draw on the practical wisdom we accrue when we regularly reflect on past actions.

Bolton and Delderfield’s 2018 book on reflective writing for the professions, Reflective Practice, poses some useful reflection-in-action questions. In any assignment, planners can ask:

  • What we know and wish or need to know further
  • What we know but do not know we know
  • What we think, feel, believe, value, [and] understand about our role and boundaries
  • How our actions match up with what we believe
  • How to value and take into account our personal feelings

Because planners work in complex administrative and social settings, Bolton and Delderfield also pose reflection questions that concern relational or contextual dimensions. Planners can consider:

  • How to perceive from others’ perspective
  • How to value others’ perspective, however different they are from us
  • What we can change in our context; how to work with what we cannot change
  • How others perceive us, and their feelings and thoughts about events, and our actions
  • Why we become stressed, and its impact on life and practice
  • How to counteract seemingly given social, cultural, and political structures

Surely there are many other good reflection questions. The point is to take the time to reflect on past practice and in the midst of current projects, with these questions and others you develop find useful.

This reflection can be solitary, as in journaling about practice, or in collaboration with peers or mentors. This is how you mill experiences into practical wisdom over the long run. It’s a good investment.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist." This blog series is amplified in Richard Willson's book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career. The book includes perspectives, tools, advice, and personal anecdotes. It is available now at Routledge, Amazon, and most retailers.

Top image: Getty Images illustration.


About the Author

Richard Willson, FAICP

Richard Willson, FAICP, is a professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. He has also served as department chair, interim dean, and independent planning consultant. Willson's research addresses planning practice and parking policy. His book, A Guide for the Idealist: How to Launch and Navigate Your Planning Career, amplifies the themes in this blog series. Willson is also the author of Parking Reform Made Easy (Island Press, 2013) and Parking Management for Smart Growth (2015). Willson holds a PhD in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, a Master of Planning from the University of Southern California, and a Bachelor of Environmental Studies from the University of Waterloo.


December 13, 2019

By Richard Willson, FAICP