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.

Diversity & Inclusion Community of Practice

At the debut CIDI-ICDI (Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion) Community of Practice Event in Calgary.I had a wonderful take-away within the first 5 minutes of discussion. Leader Michael Bach posed the question – What are the challenges? and a participant from the Calgary Airport Authority raised that all-pervasive objection – “But if we put in programs to promote and hire them what will happen to me?”

It is the classic positional bargaining, I Win, You Lose illusion. Your benefit is my loss. Overcoming this kind of illusion requires a paradigm shift. Once that shift from I Win, You Lose to We Both Win happens, there are tremendous wins for an organization. The talent pool expands and the sum becomes greater than the parts.

Unfortunately the win/lose illusion does not look like an illusion from up close. It looks threatening. There is a very real perception of threat which can only be overcome through dialogue and education. Policies are not enough.

So how can an organization address that objection in a meaningful way and facilitate the paradigm shift? Such a shift has the potential to have a tremendous impact on organizational culture and it begins with dialogue. It is important to acknowledge and understand the perception of threat. Only once people feel heard, understood and acknowledged will they be ready for acceptance.

Are you measuring Diversity in your organization? Where are you on the journey to paradigm shift?
Check out the CIDI report What Gets Measured Gets Done. You can download it here.

Executives make decisions by intuition

I learned recently that executives make decisions by intuition.  They rely on their own experience rather than consulting with the many resources they have at their disposal.

Huge office tower

Denise Chenger researched the decision-making processes employed by an executive to approve a major capital project decision in upstream oil and gas for her PhD research. She was surprised to learn how little influence senior managers had on executive decision-making. Often, by the time senior managers learn of the decisions, the time for influencing it has passed. Denise found that:

  • No resources were used to make the decision
  • No association found with economic indicators (“a good project is a good project”)
  • These were not unprincipled decisions (individuals displayed patience and strategy with timing)
  • Decision making was rather obvious and straightforward to the executive
  • Both executives and managers have a role in project initiation

Her presentation at a Workplace Fairness luncheon sparked some interesting debate about the role of collaboration in the workplace. What are the risks of increasing collaboration when confidentiality is at stake?   Denise pointed out that risk is highly individualized. I guess that is why some of us go sky diving and some of us don’t.

Information may be shared with the board, but by the time it filters down to front-line workers, 80% of it is lost in translation. Another point raised by one of our luncheon guests was that often in these discussions language is being translated as well. For example, project management language is not necessarily executive language. How much is lost as people share their expertise and experiences with others who are not in their knowledge circle?

Denise Chenger’s findings are relevant to industry because she has identified a crucial need for businesses to establish organizational processes and a learning culture which will enhance communication between executive and personnel, and measure all aspects of a project (not just financial).

These questions may not have ready and glib answers, but one thing I know for sure after listening to Denise, there is room for more collaboration in the C-suite.

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.

Did you know that up to 78% of Short Term Disability claims are related to mental health concerns? Working in the conflict business, I am becoming increasingly aware of the impact of mental health issues in the workplace.  So last fall, I signed up for Mental Health Works, a 2 day program put on by the Canadian Mental Health Association (Calgary region) targeted at managers and HR Professionals dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

I walked away impressed with their simple yet effective strategy for managers to enter into the accommodation or performance management conversation in a meaningful way.  It is based on 3 simple steps:  I notice; I’m concerned; Let’s focus on solutions at work.


It struck me immediately that it looks very similar to the structure we use in a mediated conversation, and that it is aimed at being preventative.   Mediation too, or a structured conversation with an impartial facilitator, can be preventative and will provide the safe space many need for full disclosure.

So my colleague Michelle Phaneuf and I approached Morgan Craig-Broadwith, the Manager of Workplace Wellness for the CMHA, Calgary Region, and we decided to put on a learning breakfast with a simulated mediation based on a mental health issue.  There were two purposes to the event:

  • To demonstrate a mediation with a simulated scenario.
  • To open a conversation about mental health in the workplace.

We conducted the role play live and unscripted in front of an audience of about 30 people, mostly from the HR community in Calgary.

As the role players became safer and more trustful the employee, played by Morgan, disclosed that she was dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Her manager’s reaction was shock, and fear: a genuine reaction born from surprise.  Similarly, the employee experienced the accusations and mistrust from her manager that many people in the workplace face.

While the parties did get up and over Conflict Mountain and began searching for options, we had to cut the mediation short before writing up a full agreement to allow time for questions.  I think if we do this again we need to allow at least ½ day for the entire event.

  • We got some excellent questions from the audience:
  • What should be considered when writing up an accommodations plan?
  • What do you do when one party does not seem to hear the apology of the other and they appear to be spiraling around the same issues?
  • What is important about the written agreement and how do you make sure it is specific enough and hold the parties accountable to it?
  • What do you do when participants get frustrated and are uncooperative?

As you can see by the questions, this made for a rich discussion, and each question merits a blog of its own. I have fodder for months, as you can’t do justice in a few sentences for any one of these questions.

ImageYesterday’s presentation and role play was absolutely excellent, likely one of the most beneficial ones I’ve been to in a long time. (Joellen Short, CHRP Candidate, Long View)

Thanks to everyone who participated. We would love to hear more of your feedback. If you were a participant at this event, I am very interested to know if it has influenced your perspective on using a neutral facilitator for those preventative facilitated dialogues.

A Simulated Mediation – mental health issues in the workplace

Leaders can learn from Scot Beckenbaugh

Toronto Maple Leafs player scoring goal agains...

Toronto Maple Leafs player scoring goal against Detroit Red Wings, Stanley Cup Playoffs, 1942 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it comes to resolving disputes, leaders can learn from Scot Beckenbaugh.

There may be mixed feelings to the news of returning hockey this week, but one thing is for certain: we can all learn something from Scot Beckenbaugh, the mediator who managed the NHL talks in a frenetic and final 48 hours this weekend.

Define your role.

Beckenbaugh’s experience is in the business of negotiating labour disputes in a wide range of industries for the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. He does have extensive experience with sports negotiations, but his business is not hockey.  He has declined interviews and comments about the talks this week.

  • You can support good dispute resolution by making a deliberate decision yourself about when and how to get involved.  Support those with the authority who are most closely involved and have the expertise to own the content, the final decision, and the stories. Be transparent about your role.

Listen openly and critically.

Winnipeg Jets Defenseman and union negotiator Scott Hainsey told reporters that “Scot was great for a number of reasons…When it got to points where you didn’t know what to do next – or you had an idea but you didn’t know if it might upset the other side – you could go to him and talk to him about it and there was a way to work your ideas through a third party who was able to really help the process.”

  • Asking powerful and provocative questions and listening actively to the answers will help others clarify their thinking. You will learn a lot too, and when the decision is finally made, you will understand if and when it is the right one, and when it is necessary to step in.

Remain loyal to the process.

Over a 48 hour period and in marathon days Beckenbaugh held both sides to the process.  There was not enough trust for parties to meet face to face, so Beckenbaugh managed the process by shuttling between them, building trust in his engagement, and in the process of conciliation.

  • Decide on an appropriate process for reaching a resolution and hold everybody to it.  Even when you don’t have a ready answer you can demonstrate leadership by managing an effective process to get to one.

Providing ready answers and solutions is the easy part of being a leader. The mature and effective leader knows when to step back and how to empower others to reach their own conclusions. Active listening will aid understanding for all, and strategic choices about your role and the process will foster good long-term decisions.

I took the Standout Strengths Test Today

I took the Standout Strengths Test today (  I was introduced to it by Janine Gilmour at our recent Workplace Fairness Luncheon.  My top two strengths, according to the test, are Creator and Connector.  So the greatest value I bring to the team is my “gift for knowing the special formula to release unexpected synergies between people, teams and ideas.” I begin by asking “What do I understand?” and I am not good at snap decision.  Yes. I can agree with that.  And yes, it is true that though I often present like this outgoing extrovert, in fact I need time on my own to think and re-energize.  The strengths test confirmed that.

Paper Bark - Carole Grogloth, Molokai Hawaii

We learned from Janine that these strengths are hard-wired.  The big question is, how do you leverage your own strengths?  Janine was very frank about her own experience leveraging her strengths and how she got there.  She shared examples of the mistakes she has made learning the hard way and the challenges she has faced, and that won the group over.  It takes courage and conviction to meet your challenges head on and to master them.  It takes even more courage often to talk about those mistakes in a public forum.

In her presentation, Janine revealed the holy half-dozen intrinsic motivations: mastery, autonomy, feedback, self-determination, affiliation and recognition.  I recognize these and I call them the heavy hitters because when people are in conflict, it is often one of these that is missing (along with, inevitably, trust).

Daniel Pink talks about these too in his book Drive.  Now this is a book worth exploring if you haven’t already.  Pink reminds us that after we are earning enough to make a living, we won’t be motivated by more money, we need autonomy, mastery and purpose.   (Check out this animated video of his description here

So how do you leverage your strengths?  You need to set great goals.  OK. Here is one I get caught up in because I am always evaluating feasibility and do-ability.  Maybe that isn’t necessary.  My friend Nancy’s great goal is “World peace one conversation at a time.”  I need to work on mine… Stay tuned.

You need to foster motivation (see above).

You need to overcome obstacles.  I was a sales rep once upon a time, and a significant part of sales training is overcoming obstacles.  I learned that to overcome, you actually need to acknowledge and listen.

You need to adopt a master mindset.  This is all about the positive possibilities in the future.  My standout strengths test indicates that I think in terms or possibilities – “ Wouldn’t it be great if?”  So that is a good start.

What do you need to work on?  I am going to think about my great goal and get back to you on that one and I would love to hear yours!  Comment below.

If you would like to learn more about the Standout 9 Strength Test, contact Janine Gilmour.