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Problem: The ability to think and act strategically is critical for organizations. One method that organizations use to demonstrate strategic thinking and plan for the future is an annual business planning session, which can be an instrumental tool in directing an organization, communicating goals and providing a road map so that individuals know how their day-to-day activities affect the organization. However, the success of this session depends, in part, on the process and methodology.
Ideally, organizations will initiate the process of business planning throughout the organization. Planning that occurs at each organizational level should support overarching goals and strategies. Plans should be dynamic, able to change as required by the business, and revisited regularly. Personal development plans and evaluations should align with business plans. The challenge is, even in these best-case scenarios, organizations may still fail.
Many organizations follow the process of articulating a vision, creating a mission statement, utilizing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, creating strategic imperatives and then developing tactics to determine the direction of the business and where they should be investing time and resources. The outcome is a plan for the year that functions as a road map for the organization. However, one issue with a typical SWOT analysis is that the process encourages at least half of the planning time to be focused on the negatives and gaps within an organization, with the intent of fixing issues and problems—a draining and often exhausting experience that leaves employees feeling defeated.
Is there a better way to conduct this process? Is there a way to make business planning a more positive, engaging and effective experience?
The Solution: Appreciative Inquiry (AI) methodologies have been applied to organizations with outstanding results (Sprangel and Stavros, 2011). AI uses the “4-D” approach (Stavros and Cooperrider, 2003):
- Discovery: Identify moments of excellence, core values and best practices;
- Dream: Envision positive possibilities;
- Design: Create structures, processes and relationships to support the dream; and
- Destiny: Develop an effective, inspirational plan for implementation.
A specific application of this way of thinking is a SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) analysis. Used in the place of a SWOT analysis, SOAR can be “a profoundly positive approach to strategic thinking and planning that allows an organization to construct its future through collaboration, shared understanding and a commitment to action” (Stavros and Hinrichs, 2009). It provides an AI framework for the strategic planning process, from creation to implementation.
Used For: Creating momentum by building a strategic plan together enables stakeholders to have a vested, positive grasp on building success. Focusing on and maximizing what organizations do well creates energy and excitement, pushing individuals and organizations toward optimal performance. The SOAR process also creates and aligns purpose and values as they relate to workplace activity, helping to engage employees.
SOAR leverages AI to focus on the positives while still addressing areas of need. Organizations do many things well, but often, they do not take the time to reflect on, communicate, build on and maximize these strengths or to determine what is meaningful to key stakeholders. Through co-creation, SOAR provides opportunities to identify and discuss strengths and opportunities, reframe any underlying issues so that they are viewed through the eyes of possibility, carve out the future and solidify measures to gauge success.
SOAR has a collaborative focus (Sutherland and Stavros, 2003). It involves a diverse group of stakeholders representing each part of the organization, as well as others outside of the organization, to maximize diverse viewpoints. External stakeholders can include customers, employees, shareholders, board members, suppliers, volunteers and related communities. Using this methodology supports systems thinking, in that decisions will be made that consider the far-reaching implications of actions.
Low Participation - SOAR can be used in un-engaged and low employee moral situations. The motivational aspects of SOAR are incredibly powerful, allowing employees and stakeholders, to find their voice in the future plans of the organization. (D. Lynn Kelley, Ph.D., Vice-President, Textron Six Sigma, Providence, Rhode Island)
Complexity - When there are many moving parts to building a strategy and there confusion about in method/approach, SOAR is a practical guide for navigating the complexity with it’s step by step approach framework. (Deborah Maher, Principal, Touchstone Consulting Group, Washington, D.C.)
Knowledge & Talent Building – SOAR’s framework can used to generate knowledge from hidden parts of an organization and to also grow talent, and is colleges and university classrooms, to improve learning dynamics. The 4-D Cycle of Appreciative Inquiry guides the process of ‘Growing Talent for Inclusion (Cooperrider & Srivatsva, 1987).
SOAR methodology can build on an organization’s vision and mission statement or, if these have not yet been formulated, can help to create them. Stakeholders participate in a workshop experience in which they answer a series of well-formulated questions that align with each category of the SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results). This facilitated experience will draw out diverse viewpoints and encourage positive conversations about past, current and potential future successes. The process varies in length but usually takes about eight hours. Opportunity should be provided to allow participants to articulate the ideas formulated through this process, and for dialogue to occur.
Key themes will emerge, and the facilitator will draw them out and articulate them in order to construct strategic imperatives for the organization (see Figure 1). A follow-up session is typically required to create the tactical plans to support these strategies. This is a good opportunity to pull in a broader stakeholder group and to communicate what has been done to date. Discussions, debates and alignment will be the outcome of this communication, and the tactical planning by this group is critical, as this group will most certainly be involved in implementing the tactics.
Strategic plans are sometimes created with the best intentions, only to be put on a shelf and revisited only when performance reviews are taking place. However, these plans need to be flexible enough to meet the needs of changing environments. The SOAR strategic plan should be reviewed on a regular basis and adjusted to ensure that it continues to meet the needs of the organization.
The SOAR technique is a specific application of AI principles, providing organizations with an improved framework for strategic planning. Using SOAR within the strategic planning process enable organizations co-create their future pathway to success.
1) Demographics -
Identify stakeholders who will participate, and determine the format and frequency of meetings (One large summit? A series of shorter meetings?). Participants should represent all levels of the organization and all functional areas.
2) Materials - Create an interview questionnaire or guide for gathering information about strengths, perspectives, and aspirations of employees and key stakeholders.
3) Session - Engage employees and other stakeholders—including clients, vendors, and partners, if appropriate—to discover the conditions that created the organization’s greatest successes. Ask powerful, positive questions to generate images of possibility and potential. Threats, weaknesses, or problems should not be ignored, but rather should be reframed. Discussion should focus on “what we want” rather than “what we don’t want.” Identify aspirations and desired results that create a compelling vision of the future using the best of the past and that also inspires and challenges the status quo.
SOAR Workshop: Participants articulated potential business opportunities for their department and organization.
4) Record - Summarize the organization’s positive core, which is its total of unique strengths, resources, capabilities, and assets.
5) Analyze – Sort information into themes and identify areas of opportunities. Write goal statements for each of these strategic opportunities and identify measures that will help track the organization’s success.
6) Follow-up - Plan actions and implement the plan for each identified goal.
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