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SOAR – Workshop Review

written by Amanda Horne 3 September 2010

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Jackie Stavros

Jackie Stavros

What if strategic planning were invigorating?  Or organization-changing?

In Australia, we were thrilled that John Loty of the Appreciative Inquiry Network invited Jackie Stavros here to facilitate workshops in July 2010. Jackie, an expert in strategy and Appreciative Inquiry, created her ‘SOAR’ framework and ‘5-I’ approach to bring an appreciative approach to strategic planning. Jackie facilitated a series of one-day ‘SOAR to Greatness’ workshops for managers, change agents, HR Managers, and executive coaches in four Australian cities.

I was part of an enthusiastic group of participants who attended Jackie’s Canberra workshop on July 26th. Being a long-time practitioner and fan of Appreciative Inquiry and Appreciative Coaching, I was eager to learn about Jackie’s work.

A little bit about Jackie: she has had extensive experience both teaching (Program Chair and Associate Professor, College of Management, Lawrence Technological University) and working with individuals, teams, divisions and organizations in the development of strategy, strategic planning, organizational development and change, marketing, teamwork and leadership. She is the co-creator of SOAR, a strengths-based approach to building strategic capacity and co-author of the Thin Book of SOAR, The Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, and Dynamic Relationships.  Jackie uses strengths-based whole system approaches such as Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and SOAR to work with individuals, teams, divisions, and organizations to build dynamic relationships and co-create and facilitate strategic change initiatives with positive results. For a more extensive bio, refer to her page at Lawrence Tech.


SOAR stands for: Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results.

“SOAR is a strategic thinking, strategy formulation, and planning framework that allows an organization to construct its future through collaboration among its stakeholders. It is a strengths-based approach to building strategic capacity, and is an appreciative alternative to SWOT. SOAR Applications include: Strategy, strategic planning, team building, coaching, leadership development, and strategic summits.”

The 5-I Approach

This is an approach using SOAR in formal strategic planning. The five “I” phases are: initiate, inquire, imagine, innovate, and inspire to implement.

The SOAR Workshop

Areas covered during our day with Jackie included:

  • How to create strategic inquiry with appreciative intent
  • The history of the SOAR framework
  • Examples and case studies
  • How to use SOAR using the ‘5-I’ approach
  • The ‘5-I’ approach and formal strategic planning

Key points and thoughts which I noted throughout the workshop include:

What happened to SWOT? For those familiar with the SWOT approach (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), Jackie explained that she does not ignore weaknesses and threats. Instead they are acknowledged and reframed in the “O” piece of her SOAR framework. This heartened those in the room who feared that fields such as Appreciative Inquiry and Positive Psychology ignore the negative.

Why SOAR makes an impact: I like to think that SOAR is SWOT refashioned and updated for 21st Century organizations who are seeking to create workplaces which have greater employee engagement, collaboration, community, meaning, purpose, creativity and energy. SOAR conversations not only achieve strategic outcomes, they also contribute to achieving many other business objectives necessary for creating sustainable workplaces. Using Appreciative Inquiry, SOAR, or any other various based on the principles of AI works with any person, no matter what role or level they hold in or outside an organization. An even greater advantage of SOAR and Appreciative Inquiry, in my opinion, is that participants in the conversations don’t even need to be interested in strategic planning. These are very inclusive approaches that work well for everyone. No matter what the level or skill, each participant had a voice that is valued and recognized. It is truly collaborative and consultative.



Values, meaning, purpose and strengths: Whether from a whole system or individual perspective, life is better when we align with our values, have meaning and purpose in our work, life and in our vision, and we work from a place where we can use our best strengths to make meaningful contributions. The SOAR workshop reinforced that not only do SOAR and AI deliver in the project focus, by-products include greater connection to values, meaning, purpose and strengths. This is a good thing.

And further: SOAR and AI helps to break down silos, and to connect more strongly with stakeholders and clients, and creates an environment in which respectful conversations and relationships flourish. In her ‘Thin Book of SOAR’ Jackie notes that companies become more resilient, are better able to manage unexpected changes and uncertainty. This is partly due to the strengthening of the organization through its adoption of mindsets, approaches and methods based on AI.

Confidence: The workshop inspired people to include what they learned into their practices, and to have the courage to be creative.




Stavros, J. (2009). The Thin Book of SOAR; Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Thin Book Publishing.

Jackie Stavros by John Loty
SOAR framwork by Jackie Stavros, at AppreciativeInquiryNet
Soaring by Amanda Horne

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oz 3 September 2010 - 5:16 pm

Amanda – your might be interested in this research that suggests that we learn more from failure than success. http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=832

Amanda Horne 3 September 2010 - 7:11 pm

Hi Oz

Coincidentally, I did read your link a couple of weeks ago and just before I ran an appreciative inquiry workshop with a client group. I found a way to integrate the reflection of failures into the process, whilst still maintaining the overall Appreciative Inquiry philosophy. It was great timing (thank you) because it helped everyone to think about both successes and failures.


oz 3 September 2010 - 7:50 pm

Amanda – perhaps it should be realistic inquiry – which sort of sounds like a SWOT. I suspect that the old SWOT is still the best tool around

oz 4 September 2010 - 3:10 pm

Amanda – there are lots of big statements about SOAR – eg “… companies become more resilient, are better able to manage unexpected changes and uncertainty.” Have any of these ever been tested with a controlled study?

Whackamole 4 September 2010 - 7:33 pm

You’re enjoying your day
Everything’s going your way
Then along comes Debbie Downer
Always talking bout a new disease
a car accident or killer bees
you beg her to spare you
“Debbie, please!”
but she can’t stop
she’s Debbie Downer.

Amanda Horne 7 September 2010 - 11:41 pm

Hi Oz

Jackie included in her book anecdotal information based on her experiences with clients. She mentions Haverbrook Healthcare which managed a difficult effectively because staff were more resilient, more collaborative and therefore better able to handle the issue. This resilience and collaboration had been created earlier through the use of SOAR/AI.

In another client example, over a period three years, SOAR helped to contribute to increases in employee engagement, employee retention, client satisfaction, revenue and profits. These results are presented more fully in the book “Practicing Organizational Development: A Guide to Leading Change” 2010, Jossey-Bass.


oz 8 September 2010 - 4:19 am

Amanda – it could all be the Hawthorne effect – case studies don’t really cut the mustard in psychology research.

Sue James 9 September 2010 - 11:05 pm

Thank you for this Amanda! I wasn’t able to get to Jackie’s workshops while she was here, though did manage to spend some delightful time with her over a meal. It was great to read your summary and thoughts on the workshop.

I have used the SOAR framework on many occasions in work with clients. And, while I agree with Oz that SWOT can be a useful tool, I’ve found using SOAR instead brings with it far greater energy and commitment to action. Many groups using SWOT can become ‘bogged down’ in the weaknesses and threats elements to the detriment of creative future planning for better outcomes.

And .. in response to Oz’s comment re ‘realistic inquiry’, SOAR and Appreciative Inquiry are not ‘unrealistic’ in any way. They do not ignore deficits, failures, ‘threats’ and the like – just do not use these as the basis for future planning.

There is a wealth of research to show that focusing on what works – and focusing on positive anticipatory scenarios, rather than on what is not working, DOES produce better outcomes. Some of that research dates back many years, including the “Pygmalion Effect”, the study done with school students – which was back in the 1940s, I think.

There is a prevalent ‘myth’ at times that Appreciative Inquiry follows a kind of “Pollyanna” approach … it’s all about ‘feel good’ stuff and ignores the problems. This is actually NOT the case when AI is used effectively. Human grief, pain, fear, anger etc … these are all part of the human condition and need to be honoured as such. What AI does however is enable people to transcend these and look to a more hopeful and generative future.

It has synergies with a number of other areas, such as Asset Based Community Development, Narrative Therapy, Solution Focused Therapy, aspects of Systems Theory, the years of research into resilience and the more recent research into effective organisational development.

Just my two cents’ worth .. 🙂

Amanda Horne 10 September 2010 - 1:27 am

Sue, it’s good to hear from you. As we don’t have two cent pieces in our country any more, I’ll take your comment as your five cents’ worth 🙂

Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and comments. It’s great to know about other experiences with SOAR and AI. Jackie carefully explained that the approach does not ignore the negative, it’s just looking at it from a different perspective. She also explained how weaknesses and threats are NOT ignored, they are included by looking at them through another lens.

As you noted, AI and SOAR (and other approaches) have been used in difficult situations which are far from the world of Pollyanna.

Thanks again,

oz 10 September 2010 - 6:58 am

Sue and Amanda – try the controlled study comparing SOAR with SWOT. Have both presented by a passionate facilitator in similar organisations and see if there is any difference in the outcomes. Then I might believe you. By the way I haven’t found any such studies – typically there is no control.

Howeve the more interesting questions are if AI works why does it work. Does it work with all cohorts of just some. Interesting if you apply AI to AI you wouldn’t be able to answer these questions.

Chris Bennett 12 September 2010 - 6:13 pm

Here is my bias, not founded on academic research but on practical experience. Sue is my business colleague and we both work as facilitators. We’ve used the SOAR technique and Appreciative Inquiry and both have had a very favourable reesponse. Not just during the facilitation day but from the feedback we have received after our clients have used SOAR and Appreciative Inquiry. And we have a diverse range of clients.

Research and reliance on research is important but sometimes it can lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’. Or even an avoidance of actually trying a particular concept.

This discussion reminds me of my experiences in teaching Tai Chi which we use in our business model AQ-KQ (Appreciative Intelligence & Kinaesthetic Intelligence). Analysis of Tai Chi is helpful but one has ‘to do’ to really understand the feeling and the concepts.



oz 14 September 2010 - 2:24 pm

Chris – in organisational psychology 101 you learn about the Hawthorne effect. AI by its very nature (as is most of PP) is a prime candidate for the Hawthorne effect.

As an aside aren’t you just a little curious about why AI and tai-chi works

If you like I will give you a free invitation to one of my public seminars where explain why I think tai-chi works from a scientific perspective. And based on this knowledge you can learen some very simple techniques to become more resilient.

My blog also has a number of articles of posting on research relating to tai-chi – all supportive by the way. Unfortunately there are none on AI – because the studies are all of ppor quality (case studies etc). I think its about time AI stepped up to the mark and committed to some real research. Otherwise it has no place in PP.

Chris Bennett 15 September 2010 - 8:07 pm

Oz – thanks for the response. I would be interested to read your blog on research relating to Tai Chi. Can you provide a link so I can do so. What attracted me to AI was the similarity it has with Tai Chi – a sense of being. And I’m no longer curious about why they work. They work – based on my experiences. But then again I’m biased 🙂


Sue James 15 September 2010 - 10:01 pm

Hi Oz – I too would love to read your blog and the research links re Tai Chi.

While I agree that research in the AI field per se is perhaps in its infancy, AI has a long history in its connection with other research around social constructionism, positive affect, human resilience and the like. You may be interested to read Barbara Fredrickson’s work in relation to this. (She also presented at an international AI conference a couple of years ago.)

The principles and practices of AI are also very akin to and have many synergies with approaches and research available in other areas, such as asset based community development (ABCD), narrative therapy, solution-focused therapy, resilience etc.

This is also said with particular emphasis on AI as a mindmap, world view or ‘way of being’ as opposed to its use as a ‘technique’ or ‘intervention’, both terms with which I find myself taking issue at times.

From my perspective, AI is less about a one-time intervention and more about a way of seeing the world and others in it from a perspective of strengths – i.e. looking for what is giving energy, life and value to a group or human system, rather than analysing its problems or failings.

In relation to this, after reading your references to the Hawthorne effect, I found myself thinking “And this is a bad thing because ….. ?” 🙂

I gather the Hawthorne effect is frequently seen in a negative light, as something that brings bias to experiments.

But surely our work and interaction with human beings is not just an “experiment”? And even as researchers or scientists, we must be aware that when we enter into the system in any way we can not remain simply ‘observers of the black box’? That the very act of participating in that human system must influence it in some way?

And if that is so, then would we not want that influence to be a positive one? It may ‘skew results’ of an experiment … but if the desired outcomes are achieved, of improved affect, energy and performance, then how is that a ‘bad thing’?

It certainly makes perfect sense to me that when folk feel you are concerned about them, they’ll be spurred on to improved performance or outcomes – particularly if they feel they and their contributions are valued and listened to, and when they have the opportunity to take action and take control of their own destinies to some degree.

I began my own career many years ago as an educator. And there was a saying, perhaps very cliche now, that ‘They won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’. Time and time again the truth of this was borne out in my work with students. It involved a genuine and deeply felt concern for every individual – valuing the best within each one, expecting the best possible outcomes for them and from them, and supporting them to be the best they could be. And the results were there – perhaps not in the form of a ‘research experiment’ but definitely in observable behaviours. It made a difference.

And what was very true for adolescents is also true for adults, I believe. 🙂

For me, this is where AI sits. Not as a scientific experiment, but as a way of interacting with others, a way of focusing on deep questions and conversations about what really matters to people – and through this making a difference. It’s about adopting the ‘spirit’ of AI far more than using it as a ‘technique’. 🙂

The Hawthorne Effect and the original research studies were completed in the 1930s I believe … when business and industry was still following a more mechanistic model. People were seen more as ‘cogs in the machine’ so to speak – so I gather it was a ground-breaking study in its day.

However in this day and age, much more focus is being given to the fact that ‘taking care of your people’ makes good business sense. It’s not simply a case of ‘paying attention’ to them during the course of a ‘short-term experiment’ or a one-off planning event – when I would assume the Hawthorne Effect might be seen in its less desirable form. That is, once you are no longer paying attention, performance drops away again.

From my perspective, Appreciative Inquiry is also about taking a long-term view. It involves a far more sustained approach and perspective. One in which there is a continued focus on what works best, on co-developing shared visions for a better future and co-creating that future through working effectively together.

My apologies for the length of this post – but thank you for prompting my own thinking and reflection!


Amanda Horne 16 September 2010 - 1:27 am

Thank you Oz, Sue and Chris for your discussion.

I have found that clients respond well to the approach/philosophy of AI. It’s in what they do after an AI session that suggests there is something working for them beyond the immediate reactions during an AI session. I have numerous stories of how clients have voluntarily taken the approach and used it in their workplaces (and in their homes / communities). These are clients who would not blindly adopt approaches if they didn’t think it would work for them and their teams.

Chris, on another note, my friend and colleague in the UK (Jenny Fox Eades) who works with schools, teachers and students is a great fan of Alexander Technique and how is assists with acting mindfully and consciously.


Sue James 16 September 2010 - 2:32 am

Thanks Amanda .. that has been our experience too. AI is most effective when its principles and practices becomes part of one’s ongoing work and life.

One resource I forgot to mention in my posts, which is relevant to this discussion, is Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker’s book, Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn.

The authors provide cogent arguments for the power of developing and utilising Appreciative Intelligence (which is really the foundation of AI after all) drawing on their own research and that of others in the fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

Well worth reading!


oz 16 September 2010 - 5:14 am

Sue, Chris and Amanda –

tai-chi articles are available at http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?s=tai-chi

Does AI really work or is it your perceptions that it works. Is it more effective than having a beer at the pub or going for a run in the rain or doing a tai-chi class or praying or attending an Anthony Robbins seminar or eating hash cookies – these are the questions that need to be answered before AI can be taken seriously.

The reality is all techniques will get a response – thats the nature of the Hawthorne effect. Perhaps there are other methodologies that tap into the hawthorne effect more effectively.

You might also want to check out the dodo bird in psychology

By the way the medical equivalent of the Hawthorne effect is the placebo.

Chris Bennett 16 September 2010 - 6:11 pm

Amanda – it’s interesting to hear your friend is using the Alexander Technique in schools in the UK. We have a program called ‘Pozitive Kidz are happy kidz’ which focuses on building self-esteem from a Tai Chi perspective. It’s aimed at primary school students from Prep to Grade 6.

Oz – thanks for the link to your Tai Chi articles. I have a Tai Chi blog called Chris Chi http://chrischi.com.au/ which provides tips, resources and reflections on Tai Chi.




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