“Let us determine strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats with a SWOT!”
As a manager, consultant, or even as an employee, whether at a meeting, in connection with a project, a strategy process, an analysis, or something completely different, you have probably heard or uttered these words.
And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I am a steadfast supporter of models and figures that can help create simplified overviews of complex situations. Over the years I have assembled a large collection of so-called “consultant matrix” tools, most of which I frequently use in my work as an IT consultant.
But I am reluctant to bring the SWOT tool into play. What’s more, I often see how the tool’s extreme simplicity causes it to be used incorrectly in various contexts, frequently to the detriment of the desired end result. From my perspective, there are at least four problems with using SWOT as a strategic analysis tool:
1. SWOT involves freely brainstorming to create a list for each of the four categories – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats – but it makes no provision for any next steps. As a result, the exercise often becomes meaningless because no one knows what to do once the lists have been created.
2. The SWOT method can be applied to just about everything, and many forget to narrow their focus – to make the SWOT exercise very specific to a given issue. When it is used too liberally or becomes the go-to solution, there is a high risk of information overload and the result is often nothing but confusion.
3. Strategy processes and issues are often so complex that their elements cannot be neatly listed in one of four simplistic categories. Thus, SWOT should only be used to generate input for a given process, and can never stand alone as a starting point for making qualified decisions.
4. Different people see different strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for a given situation, and therefore one can often end up with as many contradicting opinions as there are participants. The model does not help to find common ground.
Improvements for your next SWOT
While it might seem rather extreme, my recommendation is that you completely stop using SWOT and instead seek better alternatives. But if the temptation is still too great, here are a number of focus points that can help to improve the quality of your SWOT sessions:
- Narrow the focus of your SWOT to a single problem or a specific project – and consider the session nothing more than a brainstorm (with all the strengths and weaknesses associated with any brainstorm).
- Make sure that strengths and weaknesses focus on internal qualities specific to the organization or project. Opportunities and threats, on the other hand, should predominantly relate to external issues. While often overlooked, this separation of internal and external features is how the model is intended to be used.
- Make sure that you maintain a clear link between strengths and opportunities. This, for example, will allow you to determine which strengths are best suited to pursuing certain opportunities. Forces that do not provide opportunities or mitigate a threat should therefore not be taken into consideration during a SWOT session.
- As you may have deduced from the above, it is equally important to maintain a link between weaknesses and threats so that you can, for example, determine which weaknesses need to be strengthened to eliminate certain threats.
My recommendation is that you completely stop using SWOT and instead seek better alternatives
Replace SWOT with an action-oriented approach!
With the above improvements implemented, the SWOT approach could conceivably produce valuable insights when discussing certain basic issues.
But, as you have probably figured out, I prefer an alternative. I recommend (once more) that you drop the SWOT exercise and replace it with a more action-oriented exercise that invigorates your team and creates the momentum necessary to achieve the desired result.
When I go into a quick strategic analysis, I combine methods rooted in agile project management and strategic prioritization. The process span three steps, which represents my action-oriented alternative to SWOT:
Step one: Focus
- What do we want to achieve?
- Why do we want to achieve that? (It can be an advantage to identify some overall business drivers – for example, finance, strategic advantage, safety, compliance, flexibility, etc. – and brainstorm on the basis of these.)
Step two: Identify opportunities and obstacles
- What are the biggest obstacles that stand in the way of achieving it?
- What opportunities are available to help us achieve it?
Step three: Prioritize and execute
Prioritize opportunities and, on that basis, make an action plan to overcome the most important obstacles and seize the most important opportunities. There can – but should not – be a connection between obstacles and opportunities.