For as long as I can recall the “go-to” tool for strategic planning, team building, vision creation and the like has been the SWOT Tool i.e. Strengths/Weaknesses/Opportunities/Threats. I don’t know how many sessions I’ve sat through that this tool has been used to gather information and insights or how many times whenever planning is suggested the first thought for many is the SWOT.
On the surface, it looks like a nice balance i.e. strengths vs weaknesses with the aim of considering items that could impact on a project. But I’ve always found it to be a tool that I’d rather not use.
From a strengths-based community development perspective it starts at a good place i.e. by interrogating strengths but from there it falters. I would consider a perceived weakness or threat to be an opportunity. So, the last three categories could be rolled into one category of opportunity. Perceived weaknesses and threats can always be reframed as opportunities. They are potential areas of growth and capacity.
I’ve found that often people overstate their perceived weaknesses and perceived threats. Without guiding the process well it can start to look like a bit of a “pity party”. In this regard, the emphasis on threats and weaknesses makes it an adversarial tool. One where you need to be aware of anything an opponent may throw at you. In this light a SWOT can make, even other teams in an organisation, to be an adversary and put the planning process on a defensive backfoot.
A SWOT is also a top-down tool. It is designed for managers and others in authority to define the outcomes of the SWOT. Although, it seeks participation in a workshop to elicit information it is far from a participatory tool in its result. And being an outcome-focused tool the result is the all-important feature.
A SOAR (Strengths/Opportunities/Aspirations/Results) is a completely different tool and one that sits positively with other strengths-based community development approaches. SOAR has its basis in Appreciative Inquiry. Its focus is on what has been successful and how to build on this success.
Like a SWOT a SOAR begins with what the strengths or an organisation, team, project, community but from this point diverge from a SWOT. The difference being that in a SOAR the strengths are those things we do well and want to continue to build on not just provide recognition of them being achieved.
Starting with strengths, those things done well or excelled at the SOAR moves on to opportunities. At this point, there is potential to reframe weaknesses or threats into opportunities to build on strengths. It is not about ignoring these threats and weaknesses but on considering them opportunities to grow and build on already recognised strengths. It also provides a time to turn the tables on an adversarial approach and start to see who you can partner with to make the opportunity a reality.
Aspirations provide the time to focus on what do we want to become? Where do we want to be at in the future? What do we want to be known for? Again, this is building on both the strengths and opportunity level of the tool.
The final component is the results. What measure will be used to gauge if the project, plan, activity has met our aspirational intention. This is an important component and sometimes the most difficult. So often we are great at completing a project but assessing, measuring seems so much harder. It shouldn’t be. This is something we do all the time. We evaluate continually. at the very base, we could simply ask “Is anyone better off?” and have the basic underlying principle of doing no harm.
I’ve used both tools and by far find the SOAR to be a much more participatory and assets focussed tool. One I would choose above others in developing strategic direction. The only time I would opt for a SWOT is if the outcome and direction have already been decided and verification is asked for to ensure no deficits or problems have been missed. Even in that situation, I would be resistant to using a tool and a planning process that doesn’t have participation and strengths as its basis.