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Appreciative Inquiry: Business Planning Using SOAR

dating someone 35 years older Authours: Christine Keene & Peter Scott

about his 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?

partnersuche gronau 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):

  1. Discovery: Identify moments of excellence, core values and best practices;
  2. Dream: Envision positive possibilities;
  3. Design: Create structures, processes and relationships to support the dream; and
  4. 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.

click over here Use When:

ba vf rencontre avec joe black 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.

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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.


Doveston, M., & Keenaghan, M. (2006). Growing Talent for Inclusion: using an appreciative inquiry approach into investigating classroom dynamics. Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 6 (3), 153-65. DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-3802.2006.00073.x

Kessler, E. H. (2013). Encyclopedia of Management Theory: The Appreciative Inquiry Model. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. DOI: 10.4135/9781452276090

McKenna, C., Daykin, J., Mohr, B. J., & Silbert, T. (2007). Strategic Planning with Appreciative Inquiry: Unleashing the Positive Potential to SOAR. Retrieved from

Sojka, G. S., Nelson, J. R., Jacobs-Beck, K., & Riley, S. F. (2012). Planning to SOAR: A Strengths-Based Approach to Strategic Planning [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

Sprangel, J. Stavros, J., & Cole, M. (2011). Creating sustainable relationships using the strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results framework, trust, and environmentalism: a research-based case study. International Journal of Training and Development, 15, 39-57. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2419.2010.00367.x

Stavros, J., Cooperrider, D., & Kelley, D. L. (2003). Strategic Inquiry -> Appreciative Intent: Inspiration to SOAR A New Framework for Strategic Planning. AI Practitioner.

Stavros, J. M., & Hinrichs, G. (2009). The Thin Book of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing Co.

Sutherland, J., & Stavros, J. (2003). The Heart of Appreciative Strategy. AI Practitioner.  Retrieved from

Thomas, E. C. (n.d.). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Change.  Retrieved from

Design the Box


Teams create a physical box that sells their idea, whether or not their idea is a tangible product.

By imagining the package for their idea, the teams make decisions about important features and other aspects of their vision that are more difficult to articulate.


This exercise is commonly attributed to Bill Shakelford and Jim Highsmith, creators of the agile method Agile Software Development.

The exercise is typically run in the ideation phase of a project (as a kickoff). The general idea is that the box is used as a focusing device: it constrains the conversation and wraps up a lot of otherwise intangible information into a nice physical object, prompting teams to make decisions along the way.


The primary goals of this product vision exercise are:


Details of Exercise

site de rencontre coquine nantes Duration: Minimum of 1.5-­2 hours, but it could take from a half-­day to a full day.

* Duration also depends on the number of teams and depth of the presentation / discussion phase.

je cherche une femme riche tunisie How many can play / configuration of players: no real limit, although teams should generally be made up of 4-­6 participants.

Roles needed:

Facilitator and small groups (participants).

  • Although the exercise may be done with one small group, multiple teams working in parallel on different boxes will result in a more robust discussion during the “selling phase.”
  • The exercise works best with multi-­disciplinary teams across units.


If this exercise is deployed during the ideation phase (which is typical), inputs can be any product knowledge that exists at that time, from an identified product need, the results of initial product brainstorming exercise, your current product name and logo, to whatever customer knowledge you have at the time.

Other Supplies

  • A plain box for each team. A “family size” cereal box will work well for most projects – the important part is that it be big enough to contain the required elements (see Part 2 of “Running the Game,” below), and that it not be too big (think furniture box) to overwhelm or give teams too much room.
  • Big markers (to discourage detailed essays), coloured paper, old magazines, glue sticks, scissors, stickers, etc. Make sure you bring enough so that teams aren’t wasting time waiting for a pair of scissors or other tool / material.
  • Some physical examples or images of really creative retail packaging (boxes) can be a good idea to inspire the teams before they get started.
  • Consider bringing a video camera as it can be a good idea to record the “Sell the Box” part of the exercise to use in the debrief and/or keep as documentation. It can also serve to heighten people’s performance.

Running the Game

Part 1. Introduction / “Filling the box”

Before teams can begin designing and making their box, they need to brainstorm on what could go in it.

Give them a set amount of time to discuss some key questions:

  • Possible names of the idea
  • Possible customers, end users, or buyers
  • Possible features, functions, or other important defining details.

You can adjust the introduction phase of this exercise depending on how familiar the teams are with the product / idea they are designing the box for.

The prep time before teams actually make their box isn’t meant to be exhaustive – the core of this exercise is parts 2 and 3 (below). The important part of this introductory step is that teams have “just enough” information to get started.

Part 2. Make the Box.

Ask the teams to imagine coming across the box on a retail shelf, shrink-wrapped and ready for sale.

Be clear that it does NOT matter if the project they’re working on won’t result in a tangible product actually sold in a box. This exercise is meant for product teams, applications, services, and can be used to facilitate any vision-oriented discussion.

Give them a set time to create a box for their idea.

Some questions to throw out to the groups to get them thinking about their box:

  • What’s the tone?
  • What’s it called?
  • Who’s it for?
  • What’s its tagline or slogan, the short hook on the front to entice someone to pick it up?
  • What are its most compelling features? Benefits?
  • What about system requirements?
  • What imagery would make it stand out to you?

Typical elements that the teams should include in their box are:

  • A product name
  • A graphic
  • A couple of key bullet points to “sell” the product
  • Key features described on the back + any operating requirements.

Make sure you have ample supplies for them to create their box, and make sure they know that there is no wrong way to create their box.

* You can get teams to design the box on paper, or create a digital rendering of the box, although using simple materials to create a physical box is recommended.

A visible stopwatch set to the allotted time can be a good device to set limits and spur creativity.

Part 3: Sell the Box (aka “Sharing by selling”)

Time: 3-5 minutes per group + discussion after all of the selling has taken place

Each team is given an opportunity to sell their box to the larger group.

If you have time after the teams have finished creating their box, set aside 5-10 minutes for the teams to practice their sales pitch before selling their box to the larger group. Individual team members can take turns selling the box to their own teammates as a way to develop a coherent pitch to the group.

Things to look for / draw out from the group’s presentations:

  • Look for a naturally occurring breakthrough as they present back their boxes. People typically put features on the box, but when they sell them, they translate those features into benefits.
  • Listen for the phrases “so that” or “because,” which bridge otherwise mechanical features into living benefits.

* See below for suggested discussion points.

End of Game


  • A better understanding of the project’s core value proposition
  • A list / better understanding of key product features
  • A vision statement and an elevator pitch: a short statement/pitch that allows the team to concisely explain or pitch the project to others
  • A physical artifact that can be a real touchstone for the project – a concise expression of what the project is really about


Suggested discussion points:

  • Get groups to respond to other teams’ pitches (“selling of the box”): what caught your attention, what would make you buy the product?
  • Examine the artifacts from the process: what were some of the ideas that didn’t make it on to the box and why? If you had a second box, what changes would you make? Are there any ideas you would carry forward in your design process?

After the presentations by each group (the “selling the box” part of the exercise), you can start a discussion on how the multiple focal points can be reduced to a few key ones that everyone agrees on. Note that the idea isn’t to necessarily finalize anything at this point.

  • Get groups to talk about their own internal process: what was it like to work within a limited form (the physical box) to articulate your idea? What worked well in your process and why? What were some of the challenges?
  • Talk about the usefulness of the exercise as part of the design process, specifically the idea behind it: “Before you begin, focus on the end.” By imagining the package for their idea and then “selling it,” were teams able to start to make decisions about important features and other aspects of their product/service that are harder to articulate?
  • Are there any traps in this exercise? Does anyone believe that this is NOT a useful exercise for interactive design teams? If so, why?

* As a backgrounder to this discussion point, read the article “<u>Don’t Design the Box</u>” – which questions the value of this exercise, particularly with teams of interactive designers.

The author believes in the value of merchandising, but questions “the idea of worrying about it too early in a design process, because when you do so you are engaging more in a marketing exercise than a product design exercise.”

He also states “the ‘design the box’ exercise can be a powerful tool for generating ideas and for getting into the mind of the consumer. It is also, I fear, a trap insofar as it refocuses the designer from user experience to salesmanship.”

Next Steps after Exercise:

  • Gather and record the brainstorming results and any drafts that were prepared in the making of the boxes as these can be a useful list of features, functions, benefits, etc. that your team can take forward.
  • The completed boxes can also be used as inputs for vision statements or the crafting of elevator pitches.
  • Using the record / notes from their discussions (and even the video recording of their pitches), the group can construct a good outline for a complete product vision document.
  • Consider displaying the boxes around the office / workspace after the exercise as these can sometimes become touchstones for the project and can more useful than any of the documentation that comes out of the exercise.

“Even though it’s a playful output, it’s highly practical; one client kept a box on his shelf for six months, and would toss it over anytime someone asked what his team was doing with the new intranet. People understood the core of the product immediately, and enjoyed the break from reading yet another document describing an initiative.”


Final Notes from Facilitator

Consider running a second or multiple rounds: the exercise works well as an open-ended, divergent process, but if you’re aiming for agreement, you can repeat the exercise so that teams converge on an agreed-upon, shared box.

Variations on the Game

Instead of designing the box, teams can design the movie poster, the press release, or the trailer.

The key is to constrain the form so that teams are forced to focus in, from the user’s point of view, on what really matters about their idea, and to chose a form that leaves behind a tangible artifact that can serve as a touchstone for the project as it moves forward.


Resources and References

* All links accessed November 10, 2011

“Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers” by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo; O’Reilly, 2010 |

(PDF) “Making the Vision Solid: Design-theBox and the Elevator Test” (no authors listed):

An article by Jim Highsmith – generally credited with coming up with this exercise – originally published in the 23 August 2001 issue of Cutter Consortium’s Agile Project Management E-Mail Advisor “reprinted with permission” on

Blog post: “Product Box, Discover what your customers really want through collaborative play,”

Blog post: “Don’t Design this Box”,