Where Is Your Strategic Focus?

Recently, I was in attendance at a higher education institution’s Board meeting and watched as an administrative leader at the institution rose to address the  members of the Board.  As she began her presentation on the progress to date on the institution’s Strategic Plan, she projected a huge S-W-O-T Quadrant onto a screen behind her and said,

“the results of the institution’s SWOT analysis suggest that addressing our weaknesses will be what takes our institution to the ‘next level.'”

Why is it that we tell individuals to “work to your strengths” yet suggest to collections of individuals (i.e., organizations of various forms) to “fix your weaknesses?”  I don’t like my weaknesses.  I tend to stay away from them.  I bet you do too.  And, yet, here was a higher education leader who was saying, “we must focus on our weaknesses, because those are what will make us great!”

The problem, of course, is that they used a strategic planning approach (SWOT), that encouraged them to look at Weaknesses early in the process.  And humans, being human, tend to focus on what is not good or what is lacking.  Sure, this well-meaning, “we can get better!” emphasis can make it seem as though we really are addressing significant issues.  But the reality is, by focusing on Weaknesses we’ll expend a lot of energy, effort, talent, and resources.  And our institutions won’t become great.

In fact, if you think it through, the best we can usually hope for when we focus on our Weaknesses is to become mediocre.  Here’s an example:  Let’s say our institution is at 50% of the national average of some important variable.  So, we focus on that variable for the next 3 years and we double our output!  So, now we are at 100% of the national average.  But that just means we’ve achieved “average.”  And yet, people in the institution will praise each other for making such great strides.  “We increased our output by 100%” they will say.  And everyone will applaud the mediocrity.

But there are alternatives.  When I work with clients on strategic planning engagements, I use the Appreciative Inquiry approach and the S-O-A-R (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results) Model.  I don’t want to focus on Weaknesses (or Threats) in the early part of Strategic Planning.  I want people to focus on the institution’s Strengths, Opportunities, and their Aspirations first.  Let’s talk about what we could become tomorrow by investigating what we are good at today.  People like Strengths.  They gravitate toward them.  It makes it much easier to implement – and it works.

When an institution focuses on building on its Strengths, it can begin to carve out a niche in the marketplace (“We are really good at ‘X'”), it has a chance to differentiate itself (“We are known for ‘X'”), and, ultimately, it has the real opportunity to become great.

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