Swat the SWOT

Once We Stop Focusing on Threats, We Can Begin to SOAR

March 25, 2014

Healthcare Strategist, NBBJ


The SWOT analysis is a part of any strategist’s tool kit. SWOT, of course, asks an organization to identify its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Yet, imagine starting a conversation with someone, when half of what you want to discuss is negative in nature. It’s a tough conversation to have, asking them where they are weak and what threats are facing them. It probably feels more like an interrogation or an intervention than a conversation. It’s part of human nature to go down to that dark place; the problem is, it’s very hard to get back out.

Now, imagine having that same conversation based on the positive aspects of their life. It changes the dynamic completely and moves the conversation forward. That’s why I took the SWOT analysis out of my toolbox some time ago and replaced it with SOAR.

What is SOAR? It stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results. Let’s compare the positive and negative words in SWOT and SOAR:

Weakness: A disadvantage or fault
What is wrong with your organization?
Aspiration: A hope or ambition
Why did you choose this line of work?
What do you aspire to be?
Threat: A thing likely to cause damage or danger
What are you afraid of?
Result: A satisfactory outcome
What is your goal?
If you fell asleep and woke up three years from now, what would you see if you fulfilled your vision?

Can the substitution of two words make any difference at all? Yes, a huge difference. Imagine two scenarios:

  1. You do your SWOT analysis and discover disadvantages in the face of threats that are likely to cause damage probably kicking off an organizational fight or flight response. If you choose to fight you will have to use up strength to win while not taking advantage of opportunities. You may or may not win and any depletion of organizational strength is a loss regardless of the outcome. Choosing flight is akin to entering into an undesired merger or consolidation, jettisoning service lines, laying off employees, etc. Probably not the satisfactory outcome you were seeking.
  2. You do your SOAR analysis and you discover your organization’s hopes and ambitions and, building upon its strengths, you take advantage of the opportunities and reach a satisfactory outcome. Resources are not depleted, in fact they are added to, because you have engaged the culture in a positive movement. You do not have to flee; you stay put, build, and perhaps, enter into partnerships that augment your strengths.

I’m not being as Pollyannaish as you might think. Using a positive approach is founded in solid research that has been around for years and has proven itself in all sectors of business, including healthcare. The Positive Principle, as stated by Cooperrider and Whitney, is:

“Building a sustaining momentum for change requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding – things like hope, excitement, inspiration, caring, camaraderie, sense of urgent purpose, and sheer joy in creating something meaningful together. We find that the more positive question we ask the more long-lasting and successful the change effort. The major thing a change agent can do that makes a difference is to craft and ask unconditionally positive questions.”

It’s not that we ignore threats. We perform an environmental assessment and data analysis, but then we focus on developing the organization’s strengths, in order to derive a strategy for thriving in a highly competitive environment. Organizations are like people, and if you focus on the positive, then you are likely to get a better result; it can make or break your strategy. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a strategy process that has the Positive Principle as its basis?

There is a certain comfort in doing a SWOT analysis. It’s what we’re used to and somehow, oddly, people feel comforted by going to the dark place of weakness and threat. It’s that “feels like flying” sensation, “for a little while.” Rather than emphasize the negative, though, let’s just jump right out and SOAR.

A version of this post originally appeared on Donald’s blog.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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