Yep. It is time to tackle one of the sacred cows associated with strategic planning, the SWOT Analysis. You know the exercise. It is done in a board/staff retreat at the beginning of a strategic planning process. A facilitator draws a two-by-two matrix and labels each quadrant with the following titles: Strengths, Weaknesses,  Opportunities and Threats. The group spends a couple of hours looking at both the internal and external environment associated with the organization. They fill in the four quadrants with ideas and bullets that are a summary of the current state of the organization and its environment. Depending on the process some use this to identify goals for the organization and strategies to achieve these goals. 

Personally, I’m done with this type of SWOT analysis. I have been feeling this for the last two years and struggling with how to articulate the limitations and here are my beliefs about the limitations of a SWOT analysis.

  1. A SWOT analysis is only a point-in-time analysis. In a VUCA environment, the analysis may only be relevant for three weeks. The strategies that emerge from this analysis rely on a static context. If an organization holds onto those strategies and is inflexible it won’t adapt quickly enough to the changing needs emerging in the environment around the organization. 
  2. A SWOT analysis provides a limited perspective. It is quite possible that interviews and focus groups of external stakeholders have been completed. However, the questions often focus on the function of the organization and its perceived effectiveness. Even with external perspectives, the focus on the organization may limit the view of the rapidly changing environment around the organization and factors in a larger system that may impact the organization. The organization may miss key signals that are important in the changing context.
  3. One of the most problematic limitations is that a SWOT analysis can discourage innovation. Sometimes the environment requires a total shift in an organization’s approach and instead the focus on strengths and weaknesses of the current organizational processes limits emerging strategies to improving the current approach with incremental adaptations. Let go and think outside the current programming. Innovate. Explore and learn. 

One thing that drives me crazy is when people criticize something without providing an alternative to the process they are criticizing. With that said, watch out for the next few blog posts as I will be sharing some ideas about alternatives to SWOT analysis and different ways of engaging external stakeholders that are more helpful to the organizational strategic planning process.