In addition to facilitating strategic planning processes, I sit on a number of Boards and leadership committees. And every time someone trots out a SWOT analysis as part of the process, my reaction is “Oh no, not another one of these!” Frankly, I would rather SOAR.
In case you are unfamiliar with it, one of the most traditional facilitation tools for strategic planning is the SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The problem is, this framework that goes back to the Harvard Business School, Stanford and Berkeley in the 1950’s, is not based on aspirational strategic development but on the structure and environment in which an organization exists. While it may sometimes be useful, it can often create an over-abundance of focus on negatives.
A more recent approach is SOAR – Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results. SOAR is based on research in the field of appreciative inquiry. This approach can create tremendous energy and great results by emphasizing strengths and successes. Especially when used in the nonprofit world, SOAR focuses on a vision of the future for developing strategic goals. The emphasis is on the organization’s mission and enhancing what is currently done well, rather than concentrating on perceived threats and/or weaknesses.
A wonderful book in 2010, “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard”, featured an idea called “bright spots”. The authors, Chip and Dan Heath, defined this as “successful efforts worth emulating”. The SOAR approach desires to identify those “bright spots” where an organization is excelling, consider the mission and aspirations for the organization, and determine how those points of excellence can be emulated to achieve stronger results.
Don’t misunderstand. We all need to be realists, and weaknesses are a fact of life in every organization. Weaknesses and threats (as SWOT addresses challenges) should not be ignored. However, they should be framed differently. Discussion should focus on “what we want” (your mission-driven aspirations) rather than “what we don’t want.”
This appreciative inquiry approach to strategic planning should also not be treated as a single event. Rather, it must be developed as a process that is dynamic and ongoing, and that engages the entire organization. The SOAR approach begins with a strategic inquiry phase. This may take place in the form of a Board “retreat” (another phrase I dislike because it implies getting away rather than drilling deep). But it cannot stop with that single meeting, nor even with a series of meetings which rehashes the same things over and over.
When done properly, this strategic planning process begins with mission, and an exploration of your strengths and opportunities. Indeed, I use the organization’s mission as an introduction to the entire SOAR process. We call it Mission SOAR. Then participants share their aspirations (which includes a “what we want” view of current “weaknesses”) – and proceed to co-create a shared vision for the future.
Your strategic planning also cannot end with a “retreat report”. Such reports are too often relegated to a file cabinet, getting dusted off again only in preparation for the next Board retreat. Instead, such a report, while needed, must be followed by the development of one or more dashboards of actionable items. Add to this the implementation of recognition and reward programs that will motivate and inspire members of your staff and board and you build the ability to achieve real measurable results.
How do you start such a process? The well-known business consultant Peter Drucker once observed that “One does not begin with answers. One begins by asking, ‘What are our questions?"
So, what are the questions that should be considered during the strategic planning process for a nonprofit organization?
What is our nonprofit’s purpose in the community we serve? (Mission/Aspirations)
What are we currently doing to meet that purpose, and what should we stop doing? (Strengths/Results)
How could we take a fresh approach in achieving our objectives? (Opportunities)
What resources do we currently have that could be strengthened or repurposed? (Strengths/Opportunities)
What is our vision for needed capacity to achieve our desired results, and how do we make that happen? (Aspirations/Results)
What is our vision for long term sustainability consistent with our aspirations and desired results? (Aspirations/Results)
How do we do a better job of learning from what we are doing, and applying those lessons?(Results)
Do we encourage the incubation and exploration of fresh ideas?If so, how can we strengthen that?If not, how do we create it? (a SOAR continuous process)
Some of these are big questions, and some of them are rarely if ever a part of the nonprofit strategic planning process. A number of them are actually borrowed and repurposed from the strategic planning of entrepreneurial and startup initiatives. But, except for the profit motive, aren’t many of the nonprofits in our communities a version of an entrepreneurial organization? It is perhaps unrealistic to think that all of the above questions can be dealt with in a single meeting, but your more traditional meeting/retreat can be refocused around those questions. And all of them could, and should, be addressed in a continuous process of appreciative inquiry, and strategic planning and implementation.
To borrow from the title of the above referenced book, does change seem hard in your organization? My guess is your answer would be “Yes”. There are all kinds of barriers to change within all kinds of organizations. Indeed, one logical question for non-profit executives may be whether you have the capacity and desire to even launch this experiment with a new strategic process, and whether you have the internal resources to guide such a process? The better question may be whether you can make it through one more Board retreat that starts with members of the Board thinking up excuses as to why they need to show up late, or leave early, or not be there at all? On the other hand, if the focus during your strategic planning is on positive outcomes through appreciative inquiry, you will leave your strategic planning meeting energized and engaged.
So, the next time someone threatens to SWOT you, tell them that you would rather SOAR. Give yourself wings.