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The Environmental Scan: Using Informed Insight to Manifest Your Vision

Part 3 of our 4-part series on Strategic Planning in a Rapidly Changing Environment

Co-authored by Galen Ellis and Selma Abinader (www.abinadergroup.com)

Welcome back to our blog series on Strategic Planning. In Part 1 we recommended and gave an overview of Strategic Framework planning versus traditional long-term Strategic Planning, and in Part 2 we outlined methods for developing your Values, Vision, and Mission statements.

Now, let’s explore how to put the “strategic” into Strategic Planning.  What is it that sets strategic planning apart from operational, implementation, or tactical planning methods?  What are the forces that promote and hinder achieving your organization’s best possible future? And how do you use an “environmental scan” to gather and use data to inform your selection of Strategic Directions?  (Read more on Strategic Directions in Part 4 of our series.)

Let’s look at two powerful methods to simply and effectively collect and analyze data for planning purposes: SWOT and SOAR.

Most of our clients are familiar with the SWOT Analysis, which is used widely for Strategic Planning. It evaluates the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats affecting an organization or program.

Strengths: characteristics of the organization or program that give it an advantage over others.

Weaknesses: characteristics that place the organization or team at a disadvantage relative to others.

Opportunities: elements in the environment that the organization or program could exploit to its advantage.

Threats: elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the organization or program.

Gathering this data is a crucial step toward gaining collective insight into the forces driving and resisting change.  When leading a SWOT Analysis we often disseminate SWOT-type questions to stakeholders directly involved in a planning effort. We may also use these questions to inform our key informant interviews, focus groups, or even to define the parameters of a literature or document review.

Here’s a sample worksheet with questions recently used in a SWOT Analysis with a non-profit client. These questions can be adapted for your planning purposes.

The second method of conducting an environmental scan that we explore in this article is the SOAR method, which stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results. This increasingly common method of collecting data differs from the more familiar SWOT approach by leveraging an organization’s strengths and potential, while grounding it in the positive values of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Instead of assessing weaknesses and threats as in SWOT, the SOAR questions are reframed as Opportunities.

To learn more about SOAR, we highly recommend The Thin Book of SOAR. Here are some sample questions that we adapted from the book:

• What are these threats asking us to do?

• How can we reframe them to see the opportunity?

Pay attention to the way SOAR reframes the SWOT questions about Threats and Opportunities. In addition to this reframing, SOAR also asks us to consider our Aspirations:

• Considering our strengths and opportunities, who should we become?

• How do we allow our values to drive our vision?

• How can we make a difference for our organization and its stakeholders?

As well as our Results:

• What are our measurable results?

• What do we want to be known for?

Both SOAR and SWOT guide the collection of data during an environmental scan, but then what? How does this process inform your decisions?  To make the critical transition between conducting an environmental scan and using that data to develop strategic directions, it is essential to cull key insights from the data. We recommend using “Force Field Analysis” to better understand the forces impacting your organization or program.

The “Force Field Analysis” was created by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s in his work as a social psychologist. We use this tool to assess the forces that help or hinder achieving your vision, and to determine which ones to address with strategies to make the greatest impact. Ultimately, we ask the groups we work with to identify and weigh each force for its strength.

Using the Focused Conversation Method or other facilitated discussion approach, groups first reflect on their data. Then, using “Force Field Analysis,” we distill the findings down to most critical internal and external forces to address. Then you can decide if your key strategic directions should be aimed at reducing the top resisting forces, or at leveraging the top driving forces, or a combination of both.

Here is a sample “Force Field Analysis” from a recent strategic planning process we conducted with a local health department:


The Thin Book of SOAR
Lewin’s Force Field Analysis
Force Field Analysis: The Ultimate How-to Guide



Part 4: Doing What You Do Best: Wise Selection of Strategic Directions














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