Skip to main content

SOAR -- don't SWOT -- to reach a strategic decision

By Mark Haugen

How do you make your leadership decisions? There are almost as many decision-making methods as there are leadership styles.

Some organizations expect or allow decisions to be made exclusively by an individual or small group of leaders. Some leaders do a group SWOT analysis, where insights are gained by reviewing the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats related to a needed decision.

For leaders interested in building trust, as well as making informed and consultative decisions, I challenge you to SOAR instead!

SOAR is a planning technique, similar to SWOT, which build on strengths by blending in aspects of appreciative inquiry. SOAR -- acronym of Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results -- creates opportunities to discuss topics with those that have a vested interest in the decision. As described in The Thin book of SOAR, “SOAR sustains the values of an organization while honoring the knowledge, capabilities, and the spirit of its members.”If your goal is to build trust, don’t do a SWOT analysis. It can result in fear, hopelessness and a focus on what’s wrong.

Previously, we have discussed how leaders develop trust and the 10 key trust-building practices. But which tools can allow you to be more effective? Techniques like a SOAR analysis can support your role, allow the focus to be on the positives, build trust, and result in a buy-in with group members. SOAR can be used to engage youth voice, support negotiations, crafting an organizational vision, or identifying priorities that will shape your organizations future commitments.  As a leadership tool, SOAR can be an effective trust-building strategy that allows you to make informed and consultative decisions.  

To do a SOAR with your group, identify the topic of your discussion, create questions that will facilitate the conversation and find a time to involve others in the process.  For smaller topics, set aside at least 40 minutes (roughly 10 minutes for each step) for answering questions. Invite all participants to share their thoughts without critique from others. Document each response.

Take a few minutes to try the SOAR process to use in your leadership role:
  • Step 1:  Choose a topic that you need to make a decision about.
  • Step 2:  Craft your SOAR question by adapting these ideas we use in my organization at program planning workshops.
    • STRENGTHS:  What can we build on? What are we the best at? What is growing/working well?
    • OPPORTUNITIES:  What are others asking for? How can we meet the needs of our community? Is there a new strategy or opportunity you have learned about? Is there something that isn’t working?
    • ASPIRATIONS:  What do we care deeply about? What are your hopes and dreams for this group? What should we be in the next three years?
    • RESULTS:  How do we know if we are succeeding? What are our results from the past? What could be measured that demonstrates our success?
  • Step 3:  Set a date for the SOAR conversation and facilitate the conversation.
  • Step 4:  Reflect on the results.  How have the insights gained through the SOAR process affected your decision?

How can you see yourself using a technique like this in your role to intentionally build trust by making collaborative or well-informed decisions? What strategies do you use to engage others in the decision-making process?

-- Mark Haugen, Extension educator, regional 4-H youth development programs

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
Print Friendly and PDF


  1. Mark, I think this approach is welcoming to the audiences we work with, within youth development. I appreciate the approach of taking out the weaknesses and threats. Often times when we include those into doing an analysis participants have a hard time getting past the negatives and no action at times may result from the meeting. I appreciate the SOAR method, go right to what can work for us and look at ways to have proven results. This new approach is something I think many youth development staff could work into their programs.

  2. It is hard to get past the weaknesses and threats. Knowing a bit about your program, I'm thinking that a SOAR analysis may be a useful tool for your financial team to complete when planning an annual budget. How do you think SOAR could work in that setting for you?

  3. Mark, I have used SWOT with many different organizations. I have also observed others that use the SWOT concept but change the terms to make it more positive. I do think it is also how the facilitator uses and interprets the tool. I think what ever tool you use, it is beneficial for any group to conduct this type of process.

  4. Good Morning,

    I used a modifed SOAR (largely for time) with some staff at a regional retreat last week and it was well received. This process really captures the creativity of the brain and then moves into real solutions. I think this process is excellent and regret not having more time to go through the complete process. I hope to go through it soon. Thank you for bringing this up at this time.

  5. Brian-Thanks for your insights. Facilitation style can matter as much as the group that you are working with. How have you seen the terms of SWOT changed in the past. I'd love to learn how you and others have updated SWOT to work well for you.

  6. Joshua-AWESOME! I'm happy you gave it a try. What was the hardest part of leading your first SOAR process other than wanting to have had more time?

    1. I think SWOT has been embedded in our staff's mindset and people go to "threats and weaknesses" too quickly. SOAR is positive, engaging, tough - I think more time with a proper facilitator would have helped this be what it could have been.

  7. Great post Mark! I love doing SOAR analyses with my groups. As you stated, this method is much more positive and useful than a SWOT analysis. I find that in a SWOT analysis that people focus on what's bad and this doesn't actually lead to anything productive that we can use to create goals. I actually completed SOAR analyses this fall with a number of my committees (horse, foodstand, ambassadors, etc.) and my county leadership body. Everyone actively participated and we came up with some great actionable goals that we will be able to use to make program improvements moving forward. This is a great way to give everyone a voice and be able to sahre their thoughts anonymously.

  8. SOAR has its place, and its a great aspiration tool. However because it fails to look at threats or weaknesses it can often instil a false sense of confidence. A confidence that is not ready to deal with issue when they arise.
    I like to use both in my work, one to identify the landscape, the other the mindset.


Post a Comment