Strategic planning: Strengths-based vs. Deficit-based

by | Aug 26, 2021 | Effective Teams, Innovation, Leadership, Strategy

There are many different ways to approach strategic planning as an organization. Some view strategic planning as an opportunity to fix problems, correct issues, or address deficits. Other organizations consider strategic planning as an opportunity to build on existing strengths and pursue exciting possibilities. Our mindset during a strategic planning process can impact the priorities we pursue. 

Bryson (2018) defines strategic planning “as a deliberative, disciplined approach to producing fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization (or other entity) is, what it does, and why” (p. 8).

Instead of a deficit-based approach to strategic planning, leaders might consider a strengths-based approach such as Appreciative Inquiry. Stavros, Godwin, and Cooperrider (2015) explain: 

“At its heart, AI (Appreciative Inquiry) is about the search for the best in people, their organizations, and the strengths-filled, opportunity-rich world around them. AI is not so much a shift in the methods and models of organizational change, but AI is a fundamental shift in the overall perspective taken throughout the entire change process to ‘see’ the wholeness of the human system and to “inquire” into that system’s strengths, possibilities, and successes. ”

There are five steps in the Appreciative Inquiry process:

  1. Define: In this step, we define the focus of our inquiry. For example, will we discuss the entire organization, a specific unit, a product or service we produce, an aspect of the organization, etc.? 
  2. Discover: During discovery, we identify strengths, what we do best, successes, and times when we experienced excellence. This occurs through a conversation, and it can be helpful to write down all responses. 
  3. Dream: Dreaming encourages us to imagine an ideal future. Based on what we discussed during the discovery step, we explore the possibilities, hopes, and aspirations for the future. Writing down comments, drawing pictures, and building prototypes can be helpful during this phase. 
  4. Design: Design helps us bring together the discovery and dream steps to determine how we will move forward. Organizations begin to allow reality to set in and decide what this dream will really look like.  
  5. Deliver/Destiny: The delivery or destiny step moves us into implementation. Organizations should consider how the change will occur, how it will be monitored, and communicated. 

Benefits of strategic planning include: 

  1. Establishing a vision: Strategic planning helps organizations establish a vision for a successful future, and it can help identify strategies for addressing challenges and taking advantage of opportunities. 
  2. Engaging people: Strategic planning is a great process for engaging people. An effective planning effort can provide opportunities for employees and stakeholders to reflect on the organization’s current state and envision a more desired future. 
  3. Communicating priorities: Strategic planning helps communicate priorities to employees, stakeholders, customers, and the greater community. Communication is challenging for organizations, and planning processes should include regular communication about priorities and progress toward identified goals.
  4. Enhancing effectiveness and mission: Strategic planning can help organizations reset and ultimately focus on the most important things. Instead of continuing to do things because “that’s the way we have always done it,” strategic planning helps us choose what to do and what to stop doing. 

Does your organization have a clear vision for the future? How can you consider your organization’s strengths during a strategic planning process? We provide strategic planning consulting and facilitation services to businesses and nonprofits. If you are interested in learning more about our services, please contact us.


Bryson, J.M. (2018). Strategic planning for public and nonprofit organizations: A guide to strengthening and sustaining organizational achievement (5th ed.). Wiley. 

Stavros, J., Godwin, L., & Cooperrider, D. (2015). Appreciative Inquiry: Organization Development and the Strengths Revolution. In Practicing Organization Development: A guide to leading change and transformation (4th Edition), William Rothwell, Roland Sullivan, and Jacqueline Stavros (Eds). Wiley.