Stimulating Strategic Thinking, Acting and Learning in a Strategic Planning Class

John M. Bryson

The Course
For a number of years I have taught a popular Humphrey School of Public Affairs course called Strategic Planning and Management. The course examines the theory and practice of strategic planning and management for governments, public agencies, nonprofit organizations, collaborations, and, to a lesser extent, communities. The course mainly enrolls graduate students in professional degree programs such as public and nonprofit management, planning, social work, business, and public health, but doctoral students and advanced undergraduates also take the course.

A major purpose of the course is to improve students capabilities for strategic thinking, acting, and learning. Indeed, I argue that the main purpose of strategic planning is not to create a strategic plan, but to stimulate strategic thinking, acting, and learning on the part of individuals, groups, and organizations. Strategic plans can help, of course, but what really matters is the thinking, acting, and learning that go into formulating and implementing the plan (Bryson, 2011).

What is strategic thinking? I define it as thinking in context about how to pursue purposes or achieve goals. This also includes thinking about what the context is and how it might or should be changed; what the purposes are or should be; and what capabilities or competencies will or might be needed, and how they might be used, to achieve the purposes. Strategic acting is acting in context in light of future consequences to achieve purposes and/or to facilitate learning. Strategic learning is any change in a system (which can be a person) that adapts it better to its environment and produces a more or less permanent change in its capacity to pursue its purposes (Bryson, 2011, pp. 14  15).

The Challenges
The course has always been well-subscribed and well-received. Unfortunately, I was concerned about what I believed to be a number of shortcomings, including:
An Office of Information Technology Faculty Fellowship helped me completely redesign the course so that it:
Perhaps most important, the fellowship helped me understand my own goals for the students in this course. Basically, I wanted the students to become more expert than they were at strategic thinking, acting, and learning  whatever their individual starting points (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking, 2000, pp. 31  50.) This meant the course needed to create what Fink (2003, pp. 7) calls significant learning experiences in which students are deeply engaged in their learning in a high-energy  way that results in significant and lasting change having a high potential for being of value in their lives after the course is over. The fellowship also helped reinforce the view that producing these significant learning experiences wasnt primarily about educational technology, but instead was about the design of the course in which technology would play a significant role. Technology had to be viewed as a support, not as the main focus.

The Response to the Challenges
Effectively addressing the challenges required a multi-pronged strategy. The newly designed course involves:

The Results
As noted, the course has always been well received, but the evaluations for Spring Semester 2011  the first semester the newly designed course was offered  were outstanding.  The results on a six-point scale (with six denoting the highest rating) were as follows (based on 33 of 35 possible respondents):
A study is being pursued during Spring Semester 2012 to determine more clearly what aspects of the course work best, what should be modified or dropped, and what changes occur in students cognitive skills related to strategic planning.

The main conclusion to be drawn is simply that the course redesign seemed to work, at least in terms of student course evaluations, which are higher than ever. The course redesign also seems to have worked in addressing the challenges that prompted it. However, fuller details and any qualifications regarding these conclusions will have to await completion of the study mentioned above.

In theoretical terms, the success of the redesign is rooted in the presumed benefits of experiential learning (Kolb, 1983; Fink, 2003). The learning cycle of experience  reflection  abstraction  testing  experience was used repeatedly throughout the course. It is hard to imagine craft knowledge being built by any other means.

Finally, an important feature of the course involved my coming to grips emotionally with the changes. I certainly understood cognitively why the redesign might be good for the students. What I had difficulty taking on board was that the redesign would have me doing less of something I actually like doing  being the major focal point of the class and talking about something I really like talking about  and instead moving more to the edge of the class much of the time. My role changed to being more a designer of learning occasions, a coach, and an advisor, and less of a front-and-center professor. In time, however, I came not only to accept the new roles, but to welcome them, since my students clearly were benefiting from a course in which their learning was front and center.

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cockerling, Eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.
John M. Bryson. Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations, 4th Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

John M. Bryson, Fran Ackermann, Colin Eden, and Charles B. Finn, Visible Thinking: Unlocking Causal Mapping for Practical Business Results. Chichester, England: John Wiley, 2004.

Fink, D. Creating Significant Learning Experiences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Scott, James. Seeing Like A State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

Sennett, Richard.  The Craftsman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.


John M. Bryson <>
John M. Bryson McKnight Presidential Professor of Planning and Public Affairs in the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He hopes to redesign all of his courses to be more student learning-centered and to make more use of educational technology.