SOAR, Don’t SWOT!
Strategy is a fundamental necessity of organizational behavior. One of the most popular models used to assist an organization with strategy development is entitled SWOT (acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). “It begins with situational analysis: the process of finding a strategic fit between external opportunities and internal strengths while working around external threats and internal weaknesses” (Wheelen and Hunger 2010, 176).
A new, recently introduced model provides a much greater focus on the positive. It has been labeled SOAR (acronym for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results). “SOAR and SWOT have a ‘both/and’ relationship because SOAR leverages the strengths and opportunities from SWOT as a foundation and then adds aspirations and results” (Stavros and Hendricks, 10). Both approaches can be leveraged effectively depending on the specific situation.
SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, & Threats)
SWOT is a very helpful tool for organizations. “SWOT analysis has proven to be the most enduring analytical technique used in strategic management” (Wheelen and Hunger, 176). It can help an organization understand potential challenges, consider how prepared they may be, and whether or not they have the capability to react/respond to these potential challenges. “Although SWOT can be used at any level of an organization, it is traditionally employed at the senior management level” (Stavros and Hendricks, 10).
SWOT has strong potential to slow down, or even halt, forward momentum during the strategic analysis process. Based on the structure of the SWOT model, half of the time will be spent focused on the negatives (weaknesses and threats). This is one of the most popular criticisms towards using the SWOT method for strategic planning. “SWOT analysis should not only result in the identification of a corporation’s distinctive competencies – the particular capabilities and resources that a firm possesses and the superior way in which they are used – but also in the identification of opportunities that the firm is not currently able to take advantage of due to a lack of appropriate resources” (Wheelen and Hunger, 176).
SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, & Results)
“SOAR is a strategic planning framework with an approach that focuses on strengths and seeks to understand the whole system by including the voices of relevant stakeholders” (Stavros and Hendricks, 6). SOAR represents a more positive model to utilize during an organization’s strategic planning process, as it can help identify the internal desires of an organization’s employees, what they want to achieve, and even how they will accomplish the goals. “SOAR helps people connect their purpose and values to their work through the strategic conversations” (Stavros and Hendricks, 14).
The basic idea of SOAR is to build organizations around what works, rather than trying to fix what doesn’t, thus attempting to create more of what is already working. Authors Stavros and Hendricks noted research that supports building on people’s strengths to produce greater results instead of focusing time on correcting their weaknesses (quoting books Now, Discover Your Strengths and Strengths-Based Leadership). The SOAR approach integrates Appreciative Inquiry (AI) to create this transformational process through asking questions, visualizing the future to create positive relationships, and build on the relationships… thus enhancing an organization’s capacity for collaboration and change.
Not only is the SOAR method a more positive model, it also seems to be more customizable to organizational situations. “SOAR is flexible and scalable; each organization can design its own approach to fit its needs and culture” (Stavros and Hendricks, 38). There is one caveat, however: the SOAR model is biased towards what an organization can do, instead of which specific areas are opportunities and which they should avoid.
Develop Strategic Plans
Implementation is an extremely important factor to organizational growth. SOAR most closely aligns to this element of execution, while SWOT is more focused on the planning phase. It’s not that SOAR is better than SWOT, but SOAR can create more positive dialogue across many levels of an organization.
“In carefully scanning it’s industry, a corporation must assess the importance to its success of each of six forces: threat of new entrants, rivalry among existing firms, threat of substitute products or services, bargaining power of buyers, bargaining power of suppliers, and relative power of other stakeholders” (Wheelen and Hunger, 110). Most importantly, it is critical that users of the SOAR framework well-define each category as objectively (and as specifically) as possible. Practitioners must be cautious not to let the “A” of SOAR (Aspirations: what do we care deeply about?) turn into “Unknown”… If that were to happen, SOAR would instantly turn SOUR!
In conclusion, SOAR can be used to take SWOT data and apply it – but SOAR in itself is not a diagnostic or orientation tool. For front-line employee sales training, employee-improvement initiatives, or personal development, SOAR is clearly a better fit. This is probably why I am so drawn to it’s potential (based on my self-interest around the field of training and development). For highly effective organizational strategic planning without a tight time line, I recommend that an organization consider a hybrid approach… and just use both!
Stavros, J. and G. Hinrichs. 2009. The Thin Book of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing Co.
Wheelen, T. and J. Hunger. 2010. Strategic Management and Business Policy, Twelfth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.