As a foundational component of most curriculum review processes, we frequently engage in a Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Challenges (SWOC) analysis with faculty and instructors involved in the teaching and delivery of courses within a major or degree program. The SWOC analysis framework is also often used as an effective framework for conducting focus groups to gather input and feedback from students, alumni and employers.
I have recently developed a strong affinity for the SOAR process (Stavros, Cooperrider, & Kelley, 2003; Stavros & Hinrichs, 2011), which provides a interesting alternative to the SWOC process. Based on an appreciative inquiry (AI) approach to strategic planning, the SOAR framework provides an extraordinary guide for conversations related to identifying and leveraging the key strengths and opportunities of academic programs. In collaboration with an incredibly insightful colleague, Dr. Gavan Watson, we recently adapted the SOAR framework within the context of a curriculum review process. We used the questions below to guide discussion at a recent curriculum retreat (adapted from Stavros et al., 2003; Stavros and Hinrichs, 2011). Allotting approximately 2 hours for this discussion, we first divided the program’s instructors into three small groups. There were three separate “flip chart” stations organized around the room, each focused on one of the following three SOAR topics:
Strengths: What can we build on?
- What are we doing well?
- What key achievements are we most proud of?
- What positive aspects of the program have students/faculty/employers or others commented on?
- What are we known for?
- What makes us unique?
- Why do students choose our program?
- What key resources and areas of expertise give us an advantage?
Opportunities: What are our best possible future opportunities?
- What changes in demand do we expect to see over the next years?
- What external forces or trends may positively impact the program?
- What future external opportunities exist for the program?
- What are key areas of untapped potential?
- What are students, employers and/or other community members asking for?
- How can we highlight our program strengths and distinguish ourselves from competing programs?
- How can we reframe perceived challenges to be seen as opportunities?
Aspirations: What do We Care Deeply About?
- What are we deeply passionate about?
- As a program, what difference do we hope to make (e.g. to learners, the institution, employers, the community)?
- What does our preferred future look like?
- What projects, programs or processes would support our aspirations?
Each group had 15 minutes to reflect on the guiding questions presented at the station. After 15 minutes, the groups rotated to the next station, reviewed and discussed the key points summarized by the previous group, and added any additional points to the flipcharts. After each small group had rotated through each of the stations, we collectively took 15 minutes to review the key points presented at the Strength, Opportunities, and Aspiration flipchart stations, to ensure that participants had an opportunity to provide additional clarification where necessary. We then conducted a dotomocray to prioritize the key points presented at the stations (each participant was given 6 sticky dots to vote for what they felt were the program’s most important strengths, opportunities and aspirations). Based on this process, the top “3” points from each station were highlighted.
In the final step, the participants were divided into two groups, and given 20 minutes to discuss the key “Results” that they would like to see based on these priorities (see below guiding questions). Each group then reported back up to 3 measures of success, goals, projects, and initiatives.
Results: How will we know we are succeeding?
- Considering our strengths, opportunities, and aspirations, what meaningful measures will indicate that we are on track in achieving our goals?
- What measurable results do we want to see? What measurable results will we be known for?
- What resources are needed to implement our most vital projects and initiatives?
- What are the 3-5 key goals would you like to accomplish in order to achieve these results?
The SOAR framework and process highlighted above resulted in a collective, collaborative, inspired and engaged discussion, that lead to the identification of key projects and areas of focus for continued program improvement. The strength-based focus of SOAR provides an important opportunity for participants to have meaningful, positive and solution-focused conversations related to the program’s potential, and provides clear direction upon which to create a desired future.
Note: More recently, we used the above SOAR framework to develop a future vision for one of our faculty development programs. I have quickly discovered that the framework is highly adaptable to many strategic planning conversations!
Stavros, Jacqueline M, Cooperrider, D L, & Kelley, D Lynn. (2003). Strategic inquiry appreciative intent: inspiration to SOAR, a new framework for strategic planning. AI Practitioner. November, 10-17.
Stavros, Jacqueline M, & Hinrichs, Gina. (2011). The Thin Book Of SOAR: Building Strengths-Based Strategy. Bend, OR: Thin Book Publishing.