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SWOT, SOAR can be your compass on a strategic planning trek

Few would argue about the importance of strategic planning for organizational success. Almost no one would push for rushing blindly into the future with no goals or plans for what kind of talent to acquire. But embarking on long-term planning can be daunting if no thought goes into what direction to take. Methods exist, though, to make the task not pay off. 

Deedee J. Myers of DDJ Myers, Ltd. suggests using the SWOT or SOAR methodologies, or some combination of both, when getting started. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. SOAR focuses on Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results.

During a recent Business and Legal Resources webinar titled “Strategic Planning for HR: How to Utilize SWOT and SOAR to Ensure Long-Term Business Success,” Myers explained that the chief human resources officer, or chief talent officer or whatever an organization calls the function, needs to be at the table whenever strategic planning is going on since it’s up to HR to get the “right people in the right place to do the right thing.”

Also, strategic planning involves looking at the organization’s values, and it’s those values that drive talent decisions.

Myers advocates using a “world café” approach in strategic planning meetings. Such a tactic seats participants at round tables in small groups with a large pad of paper on an easel and plenty of markers and sticky notes. Groups should include expert facilitators and established guidelines, but the process should still be relaxed and fun.

Taking a look at SWOT
The SWOT approach has been popular for decades, but at least part of the thinking it’s based on goes back at least 1,000 years to the military thinking espoused by the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu, Myers says. Fast forward to the 1960s and that approach begins to take shape as a strategic planning method after several Harvard University professors developed the idea of holistic business planning.

Then in the 1970s, Peter Drucker and other authors further developed the earlier ideas by urging businesses to create mission statements. In the 1980s, strategic planning became an official discipline in business schools. Further evolution occurred in the 1990s when an influential article in the Harvard Business Review, “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning,” denounced traditional planning methods as producing rigid documents that are often shelved and serve little or no purpose.

Today’s planning experts advocate turning away from outmoded thinking that doesn’t work in today’s dynamic world, Myers says. That takes an examination of vision. In describing vision, Myers uses the acronym BHAG—Big, Hairy Audacious Goal.

“Here’s where people get stuck,” Myers says. “They think that they have to achieve that vision 100 percent, and dispel yourself of that. The vision is compelling, and it should be way out there and big and hairy and audacious and exciting. And if you get it, that’s awesome, that rocks. I don’t want you to think the vision has to be small so we do get it because that puts an automatic contraction into your organization. Have it something that people can be aspiring to every day.”

When using the SWOT method—examining the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—Myers says to be aware of what she sees as a pitfall of the technique—its focus on the past and amplification of the negative. Facilitators need to monitor the conversations and appropriately shift focus from weaknesses and threats to strengths and opportunities.

Consider SOAR
Myers says what she loves about the SOAR method is its focus on people. People, not technology or anything else, are the key at every step in the SOAR strategic planning process.

Planning discussions on strengths should focus on what the organization can build on. Leaders should ask questions such as:

  • What are we most proud of as an organization?
  • How does that reflect our greatest strength?
  • What is our proudest achievement in the last year or two?
  • How do we use our strengths to reach our goals?

When examining opportunities, Myers says to look at what stakeholders want. She suggests exploring how the organization can “make sense of the multiplicity of opportunities presented in the external market.” Also, identify the top three opportunities to focus on and ask how the organization can reframe challenges so that they’re seen as exciting opportunities. The process also should include an examination of the skills that will be needed to move forward.

The conversation on aspirations needs to focus on what the organization is deeply passionate about, Myers says. Questions to consider:

  • Who are we?
  • Who should we become?
  • Where should we go in the future?
  • What’s our most compelling aspiration?
  • What strategic initiatives would support our aspirations?

In examining results, planners need to think about how they’ll know if they are succeeding, Myers says. Results need to be tangible and observable. The results discussion also should look at what resources are needed to implement the most vital projects and the best rewards to support those who achieve the goals.