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SOARING to new strategic heights

This coming Wednesday is an important day for Optimum Interventions. Back in June – September 2011 I facilitated a series events for a senior management team and the Trustees of an important charity focused on providing services to the members of a ‘blue-light’ public service. The theme of those events was planning for the future of the charity and those who benefit from its services. This week we return to start to refresh the strategic planning process for 2013; we will be using the SOAR framework, as we did in 2011.

Why SOAR? Well, across many years the SWOT model (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) has been an almost ever-present feature of strategic analysis and planning sessions I’ve participated in, whether I’ve been a leader, a consultant or Trustee. What struck me often in those sessions however was that despite ostensibly being a 50/50 model of the positive and negative, i.e. strengths/opportunities and threats/weaknesses, the conversations and evidence collected seemed to over-concentrate on the latter.

Strengths it seems needed to take care of themselves whilst we obsessed about all of those threats and weaknesses, both internal and external. Strengths/opportunities were almost taken for granted; of less importance when set against the need to really get under the skin of the threats and minimise our weaknesses. The best of our knowledge and experience were brought to bear on the twin ‘evils’ that threatened our future success and weakened our current position. The proportion of attention paid to the T/W was nearer 75%, leaving a meagre 25% for the S/O.

Shift forward many years and the writings of David Cooperrider, Jackie Stavros and others have gradually opened doors to an alternative strategic planning model. Yes, it’s another four box model, but whilst the number of boxes and two of their titles, Strengths and Opportunities, are familiar, the overall impression and impact of the model can be very different. The other two boxes are Aspirations and Results and the model is called SOAR.

At first sight it is also a little counter-intuitive, i.e. having four boxes that offer no apparent space and time for the ‘deficits’ of threats and weaknesses. How could his be? Where do our weaknesses go? How do we recognise the threats all around us? What do I do with my sharpened awareness of all that is difficult and draining?

Well, of course there will always be a need to recognise these deficits, and act upon those requiring attention. The underpinning of appreciative and strengths-focused thinking in SOAR however places those deficits in a more positive and success-embracing framework. By shifting the atmosphere and attention from the deficit to the appreciative, the conversations had when using this model change. The energy in the room seems to remain at high levels for the whole of the day, as participants re-frame deficits to become opportunities to change something they dislike into a desired outcome and view threats as ways to demonstrate the strengths and sustainability of the organisation.

There are no longer the familiar low-energy spells to strategic planning events, where the threats and weaknesses enervate participants. Using SOAR, the wholeness of an organisation is identified and held in the room for longer, as is the view that competition and risk can be set in a framework of opportunity identification and the long term aspiration and ambition for the organisation.

So it was with the leaders and trustees of the charity I worked with in 2011. As we worked across their events, first on the strategic inquiry elements of strengths/assets and opportunities, and then into the appreciative intent elements of aspiration/ambition and results, the temptation to drop into the deficit simply receded into the distance. Of course, at first participants almost stifled themselves from mentioning weaknesses and threats, but once they appreciated that it was fine to highlight them in this much more positive context and framework, the (re)balancing of good and less good was easily achieved.

Across the past five years SOAR has become a strong feature of the tools I use with leadership teams, boards, functional management teams and executive coaching clients. All, without exception, find it a little unsettling at first, the deficit paradigm we have been socialised to being so strong. Yet, as each event or session unfolds the potential of the model becomes more apparent to participants and a more natural, ‘whole’ response begins to develop. One that provides good breadth and depth of opportunities, strong ambition and hard-edged outcomes – all built on the strongest of bases, i.e. our strengths and assets; the best of what is.

The charity benefited from using the framework in 2011, “enjoying” the experience, (how often do we hear that emotion quoted after strategic planning processes?), identifying a host of opportunities, creating ambitious futures and agreeing some SMART goals and challenging future outcomes for their organisation. All of this alongside exploring and sharing a strong sense of where their charity is, what its values and strengths are and how these influence the present and future prospects. That’s what we’d like to recreate in 2013 and help the charity to take the next steps to its soaring future.

Let me say in closing that SOAR enjoys a relationship with SWOT, in the way it takes the best from SWOT and adds to it. Let’s not forget, SWOT was designed in the 1960’s following research that showed strategic planning was far from successful in a range of organisations. SWOT offered what then seemed a more coherent and comprehensive way of collecting data and information to plan with. SOAR takes the planning process in to the 21st century, in-tune with the faster moving markets, global nature of our organisations and the growing focus on making more of our individual and collective strengths and talents.

Use SOAR in your next strategic planning session– what do you have to lose?

This entry was posted in appreciative, Charities, SOAR, Strategic Planning, Strengths. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to SOARING to new strategic heights

  1. Rose Bullock says:

    Hi, nice article. I really like it!

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Steve Lorraine