A SWOT analysis can be useless or it can be the key to success for a plan. If you have ever been involved in a strategic planning process, you have probably identified strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. What happened after that? Very often, the planning group surges forward, having gotten that step out of the way. But is the SWOT really used for anything?
Here is the rock-bottom reality—it is essential that the weaknesses or limitations identified are somehow addressed in the plan. The question is, “How will we get over, around, and through these weaknesses or barriers?” I use the SWOT as an evaluation of the plan and if we haven’t plugged up the holes identified in the SWOT, we aren’t finished yet.
Ideally, an organization focuses its strengths and opportunities to mitigate the weaknesses and threats. For example, one public school district identified a weakness as the community was more interested in sports than academics. A strength was support for education from the hometown newspaper editor. Ultimately one of the strategic priorities in the plan was highlighting and supporting students for academic achievements. In the action plan, a regular section of the newspaper focused weekly on academic champions. That’s the ideal.
However, a SWOT analysis can become tedious and can also become contentious when people have differing views or feel threatened by the discussion. Here are some different approaches to facilitating a SWOT analysis.
1. Prepare a worksheet for participants divided into four quadrants for Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities, and Threats. Allow about 5 minutes for participants to brainstorm silently on the page, adding items as they can to all four sections. Give each participant a marker and point out the 4 flip chart papers on the wall designated for Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities, and Threats. (Space them as far apart as you can.) Participants then add their items to each list and place a check mark by items that are already there and with which they agree. This takes only about 20 minutes, depending on group size. Then bring each sheet (or sheets) to the front of the room and talk it through together. Which items have the most checks? Which items need more discussion or explanation? What data might we need to verify particular items?
2. Another innovation is to start out by identifying opportunities—what are possibilities for us that are out there that we haven’t seized yet, or haven’t fully taken advantage of? Then identify organizational strengths, weaknesses, and threats only as they relate to opportunities. This keeps the group future-focused and generates excitement about what is possible. I have used this approach with the vision for the future as well. And another thing—opportunities are time-bound—they may not always be there to seize.
3. Avoid separating internal and external. This will probably raise a few eyebrows because it has become a tradition that strengths and weaknesses are internal and opportunities and threats are external. I define opportunities as above and threats as “Looming possibilities detrimental to us that are out there, but have not yet fully arrived or impacted us.” This means we have time to do something about it. For example, a common threat is the large percentage of top managers who are of “a certain age” and planning to retire in the next few years. It is not external. It is not strictly an organizational shortcoming, but it surely is a threat if not addressed with some action. Given that the purpose of the SWOT is to inform action, I think this approach makes sense.
You can use a SWOT at the start of a project or change management initiative to help ensure that there will be no surprises and also so that opportunities are not overlooked.
It is so common for the same items to appear as both strengths and weaknesses. You can assure the group you are working with that this is not inherently contradictory, but an opportunity.
14 Top Tips for a SWOT Analysis That Works by Critical to Success, http://tinyurl.com/y8cj2zyb
©Kathleen A. Paris, 2017