Strategic Planning for Positive Change

Why SWOT when you can SOAR?

Michelle and I invited Gervais Goodman to come to our Workplace Fairness lunch to discuss an appreciative model for strategic planning.  We have discussed Appreciative Inquiry before at these luncheons (with Dr. Nancy Love) and it definitely infuses the way Michelle and I do our workplace work. When you ask the question, “What works?” you have an impact.



Goodman is an admirer of Dr Gervase Busche, whose definition of Appreciative Inquiry particularly resonates for him:

The purpose of Appreciative Inquiry is to “promote transformational change toward some vague compelling intention/want.”

When I first heard this, I was confused – admittedly a little suspicious of the word transformational, and curious about the word vague. I guess I am the ultimate pragmatist. Transformation is one thing in theory, but who and what are really capable of transformation?  And vague?  Isn’t it of value to have a specific goal?  But as Goodman talked, I leaned in on a new insight – in change one does not always know where one will end up, so vague is good.

In fact, this thinking applies to my own approach when I am in initial meetings with a new client. It is important to ask “Are you prepared for the potential consequences, good and bad, of this intervention?” The outcome is by no means certain. Inquiry promotes change. And importantly, positive inquiry promotes positive change, but the process of the change is unpredictable.  Once unleashed it becomes critical to keep an eye on the outcome and stay the course.

The SOAR model evolved from work by Jacqueline Stavros in the early 2000’s. You can read more here.  SOAR is a four step strategic planning process which consists of:

  1. Strengths – What can we build upon? The focus on skills in this model differentiates it.
  2. Opportunities – What can we be for our community?  Threats in the old SWOT model are reframed into opportunities. Inclusion is important and input is encouraged from a deep cross-section in the organization.
  3. Aspirations – Who should we become? How do we allow our values to drive our vision? Exploring aspirations can be a game-changer, a deeper investigation of underlying values to determine if they meet needs identified by both internal and external stakeholders.
  4. Results – How do we know we are succeeding?

“SOAR is not based on competition; it is based on being the best you can in the environment you are in.”

I heard Goodman say this and I have to admit the true import did not hit me until later. This is a counter-intuitive idea: that when you do strategic planning, it does not have to be a competitive process.  After all, do we not need to be competitive to survive in a competitive market? How can we eschew our competitive instincts when planning for the future?

I liken this to the negotiation strategy of widening the pie. In negotiations, focusing on one issue effectively creates the “fixed-pie bias”. Likewise in strategic planning, focusing on competitive assets eliminates opportunities for collaborating and reaching out to partners whose contribution will create value for clients.

Why SWOT when you can SOAR? Because framing strategies in positive language powerfully affects behaviour. Because inclusiveness builds community.  Because adding value drives business.  Because change is unpredictable.

Learn more from Gervais Goodman.

Is the decision maker in the rooom?

Someone came to me today with a conflict and I think as we talked about it, I learned as much or possibly more than she did.  I learned about the importance of the decision–maker.

It seemed straightforward at first. This is the kind of conflict which you hear about often in the workplace.  “I am concerned about the tone and the language in the emails I am receiving from this person and I am honestly wondering if she is deliberately trying to undermine me.”  That sense of paranoia about the motivations of another, the suspicion about language and tone, these are very familiar concerns in conflict world.

Here's lookin' at YOU, sweet-stuff!

In this classic scenario, I normally advocate a direct conversation with the individual involved to start with. After all, that individual is the one who has the ultimate authority to change their own behaviour.  It is usually best to approach the most direct source you have access to for all kind of reasons – it will prevent the situation from escalating; it will eliminate the sense of possible blind-siding or circumventing which will harm the relationship further; and very importantly, it provides a critical opportunity to learn more about the other side of the story and gain a deeper understanding that will help build a stronger relationship.

But a more important point came up as we began to debrief and explore the situation.  I began with some questions:

  • What is the ultimate and ideal change you would like to see?
  • What evidence will you have when it has occurred?

Well, these questions broadened the scope significantly.  In fact, the concern was not about the emails at all, but about the changing nature of the relationship between the two organizations each of these people work for.

More questions followed:

  • Who has the authority to influence these changes that you have identified?
  • How do you believe your previous relationship with this person has influenced your perspective of this situation?

This is always a tightrope walk. It is almost never a bad idea in a gentle, honest, open and specific way to address your concerns directly with an individual.  But it is a very good idea to examine what the nature is of you relationship with that person, and the bigger picture.

In this case, because of the previous history of the two involved, because of their roles, and the nature of the relationship of the two organizations they work for, it became clear through questioning and exploring that the best move would be to turn concerns over to another who has the authority to address the bigger picture. The dialogue would not be about the behaviour of one individual, but rather about the changing roles of the two organizations in their working relationship.

Take the time to prepare before entering into a difficult conversation. Examine your own assumptions, and critically look at your role and your authority. Ensure that the decision-maker who has the authority to induce change is in the room from the beginning.