Career Plans Are Useless

Beginning planners are often advised to have a five-year career plan, following the traditional planning model of setting goals and assessing strategies for achieving them. Scholar Ray Quay calls this "predict and plan."

But a five-year career plan is almost unimaginable in the fluid context in which careers are launched. How can we predict life events, future opportunities, or changes in interests?

Flexibility in Planning for an Uncertain Future

Interestingly, an inability to "predict and plan" challenges many forms of planning. Climate change adaptation planning, for instance, deals with complex interrelationships between natural, social, and governance systems. This generates uncertainty about future conditions as well as responses to plans. Quay uses the term anticipatory governance to describe an alternative model, "a flexible decisions framework that uses a wide range of possible futures to prepare for change and guide current decisions ..."

Lew Hopkins, a scholar who studies how plans work, makes a similar point, arguing that planning is like "paddling a canoe in a moving river." One doesn't control the flow but one can react, change direction, and chart a path in a dynamic environment.

The anticipatory governance model emphasizes processes that support robust decisions under a wide range of conditions. Can this model be applied to career planning? I think it can because while career plans may be useless, career planning is not.

The context for planning a career has changed. Long-term government employment used to be the norm for planners. A planner could chart a path from Assistant Planner to Planning Director. Loyalty was expected. Today is different — there is restructuring among consulting firms, contracting out of public sector work, and technological disruption of planning work. More planners are freelancers.

Navigating Career Decisions Strategically Over Time

The anticipatory model emphasizes making good decisions over time. The planner anticipates a wide range of futures, develops scenarios and multiple strategies for each, monitors conditions and opportunities, and acts and evaluates progress. Good career choices happen when the planner makes them based on self-knowledge, their current work experience, attentiveness to opportunities, and seeking continual learning.

This approach is akin to the turn-by-turn direction provided by GPS — the planner doesn't see the whole map but just the corners ahead. There was a route plan at the outset, but opportunities and encounters led to route changes. Closer to the destination, the planner may reprogram the destination to a different one.

Making good career decisions is vital to your success and effectiveness.

Make sure you have an answer to the five-year career plan interview question. Then use the anticipatory governance model for ongoing career decisions. Avoid the dangerous rapids that are poorly suited to your personal and professional goals.

Make sure you have the right paddle for steering the canoe. Find your way to the place in the river where the current is carrying you along, directed by your paddling.


Ray Quay. 2010. "Anticipatory Governance: A Tool for Climate Change Adaptation." Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 76, No. 4.

Lewis D. Hopkins. 2001. Urban Development: The Logic of Making Plans. Washington D.C.: Island Press.

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, 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.

January 31, 2017

By Richard Willson, FAICP