Monday, May 7, 2007

SOAR Don't SWOT: Asset Based Strategic Planning

Research and experience show us that focusing on the strengths of individuals and organizations is much more powerful and effective than dwelling on deficiencies. An asset based approach to strategic planning is the SOAR which stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results. The SOAR is based in Appreciative Inquiry – an approach which creates tremendous energy and great results through focused inquiry on strengths and successes.

The conventional wisdom about strategic planning embraces use of the SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Frequently, there are negative consequences of using this method which include: a lack of focus on the most important and highest impact goals, no shared vision, no plans to support goals, and no review or evaluation of the plan after it has been developed. There is also commonly a lack of involvement in development of the plan by people who are responsible for the implementation of it, and planning is experienced as an event and not a process.

Ever notice when discussing this topic and someone asks everyone in the room to raise their hand who has found a strategic planning process valuable, virtually no one raises their hand? The failure of traditional strategic planning in the non profit sector is discussed in the Daring to Lead 2006 report. Their focus group findings include that Executive Directors are re-thinking strategic planning and want to move beyond categorical management – a fundraising plan, a strategic plan, a budget – to an integrated model for sustainability and deeper impact. A quote from a participant “ I don’t want to say strategic planning because I hate what our world does around strategic planning. It’s strategic business sense. I need to be able to look farther than anybody else and lengthen my horizon.”

The Appreciative Inquiry approach to strategic planning allows for a planning process that is dynamic, ongoing, and involves the entire system. The SOAR approach to strategic planning starts with a strategic inquiry phase. This includes discovery and exploration of the organizations strengths and opportunities. Then participants share and generate their aspirations and co-create a shared vision for the future. This is followed by the development of recognition and reward programs that are designed to inspire employees to achieve measurable results.

The key to innovation is the continuous generation of little ideas – which when recognized and appreciated grow into major results. The SOAR approach develops a culture that supports the generation and development of these important little ideas. A New Framework for Strategic Planning by Stavros, Cooperrider, and Kelley discuss the lack of success with traditional methods and this powerful alternative. The article includes case studies and other resources. Click on the Appreciative Inquiry link to the right and search on SOAR.


Jane Garthson said...

I am the editor of Nonprofit Boards and Governance Review ( and would love to have a longer version of this for the newsletter. We have over 5000 subscribers and many more who read it on the web, but lately my authors seem to have writers' block.

A couple of short examples of the difference it made to organizations that they SOARed instead of SWOTed is all it needs. You can reach me at Please let me know.

Richard said...

I write a similar piece on my Appreciative Inquiry site. See SOAR vs SWOT