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NEO Shop Talk September 21st, 2019
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SOAR: An Appreciative Inquiry Approach for Strategic Planning

Posted by on August 25th, 2017 Posted in: Blog, Participatory Evaluation


By guest blogger Michelle Eberle, Consultant, Massachusetts Library SystemClose up of woman drawing a lightbulb on a flip chart with stickers

In my new position with the Massachusetts Library System (MLS), one of my roles is providing consultation for strategic planning.  The Massachusetts Library System, a non-profit funded by the Commonwealth, support all types of libraries (public, school, academic, and special).  Yes, that includes health sciences libraries, too! Libraries in Massachusetts are required to complete a strategic plan approved by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) in order to qualify for Library Services & Technology Act (LSTA) grants and the Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program. The MLS provides professional development on strategic planning and will facilitate a visioning exercise called SOAR for member libraries in Massachusetts.

Upon joining the Massachusetts Library System’s Consulting & Training Services Team, I learned that the MLS recommends that libraries initiate their strategic planning process with a SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results) activity rather than using the more well-known SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis.

So, what is a SOAR exercise and why is it preferable? In a SOAR exercise, participants identify and discuss:

  •      Strengths (what’s working well)
  •      Opportunities (how you can add value to your stakeholders’ needs)
  •      Aspirations (your hopes and dreams for your future)
  •      Results (what you would like to achieve)

SOAR embraces an appreciative inquiry approach.  This approach generates an uplifting discussion and increases capacity for continuous improvement for the future of your library. If you have been avidly reading the NEO’s Shop Talk blog, then you may be familiar with appreciative inquiry. Directing conversation towards aspirations and results rather than weaknesses and threats creates a positive experience that generates a spirit of collaboration and good will for the future, rather than dredging up past challenges, drama, and problems.  The most important reason to choose SOAR over SWOT is that it increases your staff and community’s support for change and new initiatives. The SOAR exercise can be a powerful approach to generate creative ideas for your library’s future while engaging your stakeholders with an inclusive process.

During my first experience with SOAR, I observed my colleague, Kristi Chadwick, skillfully use the SOAR exercise to draw creative ideas from a suburban public library strategic planning task force. To set the tone for the exercise, Kristi encouraged participants to share all their ideas without judgement or analysis, to speak one person at a time, and to stay focused.  There are no bad ideas! The SOAR exercise is the time to brainstorm and capture information. Kristi captured the numerous ideas on post-it flip charts.  By the end of the session, the wall was covered with flip charts full of the library’s strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results.  At the end of the meeting, the task force was cheerful and optimistic.  The SOAR exercise prepared them to move forward to the next steps in their strategic planning process:  a visioning activity and community survey.

Maybe guiding your library’s overall strategic planning process is outside the scope of your professional role.   You can use the SOAR exercise to plan programs, update your collections, reconfigure library space, and guide your professional development.  The SOAR activity can be used to improve any service provided by your library.  It’s applicable to just about any kind of planning, whether professional or personal.

Want to give the SOAR process a try?  Go ahead and complete this SOAR exercise sheet to identify what you value most and what you would like for your future.

Check out the following resources to learn more about SOAR activities:

Give some thought to how you can use SOAR as a planning tool. If you use it, let me know how you like it in the comments here or email me at michelle@masslibsystem.org.

Image of the author ABOUT Karen Vargas
As Evaluation Specialist for the NNLM Evaluation Office (NEO), Karen Vargas participates in evaluating the programs of the NNLM, assists people with their program and evaluation planning, and teaches classes on planning and evaluating library programs.

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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