February 2017 | Some Principles of Strategic Thinking, By John M. Bryson

Kevin, · Categories: monthly_posts

For the next several months I’ll be concentrating on writing the fifth edition of Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations. (The current edition came out in 2011.)

From the very first edition I have emphasized that strategic thinking, acting, and learning matter most, not any particular approach to strategic planning. Indeed, if public leaders and managers find that a planning approach gets in the way of strategic thinking, acting, and learning, they should drop the approach and try a different one.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about strategic thinking, acting and learning. I was thus intrigued by a review of Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016) by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe. While I haven’t read the book yet, a New Year’s Day review in the New York Times Book Review got me thinking.

Apparently Ito and Howe have formulated some broad theories of technological change that go by such titles as “pull over push” and “compass over maps.” This last theory I found particularly intriguing – especially given my interest in mapping as a tool for strategy development. After all, I’ve co-authored books about the strategic uses of causal mapping with titles like Visual Strategy (Wiley, 2014) and Visible Thinking (Wiley, 2004).

What might compass over map mean? It implies that while having a map is good, you actually need a compass to do much of anything with a map, such as follow a route. So really the theory should be compass over map over route.

Still, how do you decide what direction to take? How do you decide what route to follow? A compass by itself won’t tell you, since you need a purpose first. Purpose helps orient you, so that you can know where north is. That allows you to use the compass to continuously reorient yourself so you can keep going in the direction of your purpose. Purpose also helps you create the map you need, meaning the mental map of images, interpretive schemes, and logic needed to navigate in a world that requires both sense-making and sense-giving. A sense of purpose allows you to sharpen your focus on just the information that is actually relevant to your journey; otherwise, you will be simply overwhelmed and confused by all the information that’s available. So now we have: purpose over compass over map over route.

And where does a sense of purpose come from? Well, authentic and virtuous public purposes typically emerge from deliberative argumentation. Drawing on Michael Barzelay and Fred Thompson (2010), we can say that deliberative argumentation consists of engaging with others in:

Only through that kind of deliberation can a virtuous sense of purpose emerge – one worthy of the high callings of most public and nonprofit organizations. In other words: deliberative argumentation over purpose over compass over map over route. Strategic thinking, acting, and learning begin with deliberative argumentation. Nothing else will do.


Barzelay, M. & Thompson, F. (2010). Making Public Administration a Design Science. Public Administration Review, 70(Suppl. 1), S295–S297.

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