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.