Steering a Career Between Your 'Right' Answer and Reality

Few choose a planning career to tinker with mundane problems. Planning has inspiring goals for design, the environment, the economy, and social justice. With these aspirations, however, comes the likelihood that the idealist planner knows the "right" answer but encounters political, economic, or administrative resistance.

Dealing with the gap between "the right answer" and reality requires discernment.

In planning, the question of being right is complex. First, while private companies have clear success metrics like return on investment, planning organizations have complex and contradictory goals.

Second, we must ask, "right about what?" Right about the definition of the problem? Or, right about the values (basic aims) that should apply, technical matters (different views of cause, effect, risk, and unanticipated consequences), or means of accomplishing those ends (strategy, tactics, disclosure)? Right about tactics or unique context factors?

Most planners are moral realists, thinking there are better and worse answers to problems according to standards that are more universal than local politics. Otherwise we would just take our cue from local politics. In fact, moral realism is embedded in the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct's aspirational values related to social justice, the environment, and value of considering the long-term future.

How should the planner who knows the "right" answer deal with narrow self-interest and/or ignorance among residents and business leaders? The answers are in our planning methods — education, analysis, argumentation, and advocacy.

We should bring the best answers to the public. There is a risk, however, of going too far with an "I'm right" attitude. That's why I counsel due diligence on conclusions about being right. Too much "I know I'm right" can encourage shortcuts, block openness to surprise, and impede learning from unexpected and non-linear events.

I've learned to exercise a degree of restraint before reaching a conclusion that I'm right. I slow down and think it through. A complex practice like planning does not provide certainty, as more than one answer can often show to be correct. Being certain, angry, and self-righteous does not lead to learning or the development of a sound strategy.

What can idealist planners do when they've given thought to values, sought evidence about facts and circumstances, and conclude they are right in opposition to the power structure?

The traditional choices are loyalty (accept a decision you oppose), voice (speak out), and exit (leave the organization). Each choice has professional and personal pros and cons that require careful consideration.

I am aware that this advice toward reasonableness is hard to hear right now. I'm deeply concerned about the direction of federal policy. Right now, many federal employees are facing loyalty, voice, exit questions in their work. Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates chose voice in the matter of the "Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States" executive order. On that issue, she sacrificed her position for what she thought was right.

Planners should resist actions that go against our professional values. Even minor corruption has a negative effect on public trust. If you need to fight, do it, but first think through your position and consider strategy.

Standing for what is right calls us to be authentic — accepting the predicament of a flawed world, considering what is moral, allowing the pain of things not being right, and working for the good nonetheless.


Albert O. Hirschman. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Read previous installments of this blog series, "A Guide for the Idealist," here. 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: Thinkstock photo.

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.

February 14, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP