Focusing on the Positives and Opening up Opportunities
"It pays to be cautious," and "Don't get too excited!" are phrases you'll likely have heard echoing around a meeting room. And if they follow your presentation of your plans for the department's development, you might be feeling deflated and disappointed.
Of course, you need to be professional, sensible and fully aware of any hazards on the horizon when you're deciding on a strategy. But you need to inspire people, too. Inspiration is the energy that will keep them motivated, engaged and delivering, day in and day out. Without it, their ambition, innovation and creativity may simply dry up.
That's why, in this article, we look at a simple but effective tool for balancing rigor with positivity when you're thinking about your organization's future.
What Is SOAR*?
Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results (SOAR) Analysis is a strategic planning tool. It combines data about an organization's current position with people's ideas and dreams about its future, so that you can build an energizing vision to work toward.
You will almost certainly have come across SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) Analysis, and you'll immediately see some similarities to SOAR Analysis. But SOAR differs from SWOT in two important ways.
First, it draws on the experiences of staff at all levels and in all functional areas of an organization, while SWOT is typically a management-led approach. Second, SOAR is based on Appreciative Inquiry, where the focus is on what the organization already does well, and on converting weaknesses and threats into opportunities.
How to Use SOAR
To begin, select a team of people to lead the analysis who have an external focus and who understand how your organization shapes up in your market. They will help you to make decisions at each stage of the process, and have a key role to play as the analysis develops.
Always remember, though, that SOAR is a collaborative tool, so be sure to consult people from all areas and levels of the business, and to bring their experiences and hopes into the process, as well.
Now, ask people across your organization about each of the four aspects of SOAR:
Start by brainstorming your organization's strengths with people across the business and with the analysis leadership team. These are the things that you're already doing really well, and the underlying characteristics of the business that support them.
An organization's strengths include its human and material assets, its technological and innovational abilities, its knowledge, skills and experience, and its achievements. And once you've identified them, you'll be in a better position to protect them, and to build on them to create your opportunities.
Look at your strengths in relation to those of your competitors, so that you can be sure that they have real value. For example, you might have an excellent distribution network but, if every other company in your industry has got one too, it's not a standout strength for you.
- What inherent advantages does your organization have over its competitors?
- What things do you do better than anyone else?
- What unique resources or assets do you have that your competitors don't?
- What do people outside of your organization – your customers and competitors – see as your strengths?
- What is your organization's Unique Selling Proposition?
You'll likely end up with a long list of strengths! Prioritize them so that you can focus your analysis on your top six to 10. (Your leadership team may want to make this decision itself or to simply offer you its advice – be sure to clarify this before you start.) Take your shortlist forward to the next stage, to help you to identify possible new opportunities.
SOAR accentuates the positives in an organization, but it still needs to be applied rigorously and with good business sense. Deal only with evidence-based facts, not just general feelings, otherwise the outputs will be too vague to be useful.
Begin thinking about your organization's future by brainstorming with people from across the business how you might make the most of your top six to 10 strengths. Then broaden the brainstorm to include any other opportunities that come to mind.
Consider, for instance, moving into new markets, meeting your customers' needs better, and making your organization more efficient.
Of course, situations don't always appear to be positive, but you might be able to adapt them to your advantage. Could you, for example, turn the strengths and weaknesses of your biggest competitor against it? Maybe you could offer a niche service that it doesn't currently provide.
Similarly, people will likely think of obstacles that could get in the way of the opportunities that you identify. Be sure to reframe all of these challenges so that you can focus on achieving positive outcomes, rather than simply avoiding negative ones.
This reframing is at the heart of SOAR analysis, and it helps to maintain people's positivity while stimulating their creativity.
Be sure to engage the leadership team's expertise to help you look outside of the business, and use PEST Analysis to find opportunities that can arise from:
- Spotting new trends in your business sector.
- Identifying changes in your key markets.
- Understanding changes in the law or policy related to your field.
- Exploiting changes in customer behavior and lifestyle.
Finally, filter and prioritize your list of opportunities so that you have a collection of six to 10 interesting and potentially beneficial ones to carry forward to the next stage.
Don't be tempted to pursue just any opportunity that your competitors might also rush for. Instead, move out into the "Blue Ocean" of opportunities that your organization will be the best at exploiting.
Now it's time to brainstorm aspirations. This is all about imagining how your organization could be. The key here is to think far beyond day-to-day expectations and run-of-the-mill results. It's time to dream!
What do you want your organization to be known for, and how do you want it to be perceived by its employees, customers and competitors?
Look back at your top six to 10 strengths and opportunities. Which of them really excite and inspire you? How could you build on them even more? And is there anything else that hasn't come up in your analysis so far that you'd love to achieve?
Ask people throughout your organization questions starting with "what if… ?" to encourage their curiosity and initiative. An organization's aspirations should be closely tied to its core values, so also invite thoughts such as:
- What do we care deeply about?
- What differences do we hope to make to our key stakeholders?
- What projects, programs or processes will likely support our aspirations?
Once again, it's time to refine and prioritize your list, leaving you with the six to 10 most exciting and valuable aspirations to take forward to the next stage.
Finally, it's time to brainstorm with everyone what practical changes they want to achieve, based on your analysis so far.
What will your business look like when your top six to 10 opportunities and aspirations are realized, and how will you know that you are getting there?
We don't recommend that you set specific, detailed targets at this stage. However, having some kind of specified result will tell you whether you're going in the right direction. Ask:
- What will look different when you've got there?
- What aspects of your organization and its processes will change, and how?
- What results do you want your organization to be known for?
Once again, prioritize your findings to a shortlist of results that the organization should work toward first, as it won't be able to tackle everything at once. The analysis leadership team has a key role to play here in ensuring the good sense and rigor of the outcomes.
Once you've completed your SOAR analysis, you can move on to the other stages of developing a strategy, such as analyzing risk, evaluating ideas and proposals, creating a compelling vision and mission, and setting goals. Take a look at our other strategy and planning tools to get a clear understanding of the process.
A small software development company might come up with the following SOAR analysis:
- Our small size means that we can work flexibly with our clients.
- We can try new things quickly, without worrying about overbearing corporate bureaucracy.
- We can concentrate on doing a few things really well.
- We can turn around small projects and develop minimum viable products quickly.
- We've done a lot of work in a niche but growing market – we could specialize in this and take full advantage of the opportunities that it offers.
- We can pursue innovative funding methods to help us to expand.
- Our competitors may not be as quick to exploit gaps in the market as we are – we could focus on "micro niches" within the niche market.
- We want to stay fast and flexible, while working sustainably in a field that we know really well and can add value in.
- We want our customers to value us for our spirit of innovation and our sensitivity to their needs.
- We don't want to follow the market – we want to lead it in exciting new directions.
- Growth that remains positive, but that doesn't trap us into having to deliver large, bureaucratic projects.
- Acquiring new projects and new clients who value the way that we work.
- More time for developers to experiment and to develop cutting-edge skills, to help us to work the way that we want to.
SOAR Analysis focuses on the positives in an organization and uses them to inform a strategy for the future. SOAR stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results.
SOAR is a collaborative tool. It encourages you to consult people from all areas and levels of your business, and to bring their experience and hopes into the strategy development process.
When conducting a SOAR analysis, the basic questions you need to answer are, "What are our greatest strengths?", "What are our best opportunities?", "What sort of organization do we aspire to be?", and "What results will we see when we get there?"
* Originator unknown – please let us know if you know who developed this model.