There, I said it.
I know, thousands of people love SWOT. It is a comfortable old friend in the gnarly process of strategic planning. You know the drill. People get together, pull out their flip-charts and markers and start listing the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats in their business.
But really, SWOT is just a select group’s perception of those things—often supported by instinct and anecdote and rarely by hard data or coherent methodology. And we are OK with that; reality is not the point in a SWOT analysis. It feels accessible and balanced. It gives voice to our intrinsic sense of what we feel in our bones.
The great thing about SWOT analysis is that most people “get it” and can participate immediately. We enjoy the self-congratulatory smirking as we list our strengths, and the blue sky dreamy feeling of talking about “what might be” in the opportunity category. Then, in a show of true humility, we call out those pesky weaknesses—and we smack and snarl at the unjust threats.
Don’t get me wrong; SWOT can be a lot of fun. It’s easy to facilitate. You just jump in and work through the quadrants. You write down 29 bullet points. And then you can take that 3pm giant-cookie break at the planning off-site with a clear conscience. After all, we have four big poster pages of bullet-point-brilliance tacked up on the wall of our hotel conference room. We have achieved something!
Now we are ready crack our knuckles and do some serious strategic planning! This is the way the conversation usually flows once the basic SWOT analysis is tacked up on the wall…
- You know those strengths? Do more of that.
- Weaknesses: Identify and fire the people who made us weak. (We all really know who they are but it is unseemly to talk about in this context, but HR—your job is clear.)
- Run like your hair is on fire after those opportunities because they are huge, game changing, blue-ocean, innovative, new economy type strategic initiative thingy’s.
- Threats: Denigrate and cast aspersions at those Darth Vader competitors and regulators that threaten you.
Then take a break for a big dinner and roll up all of the flip chart wisdom to be typed up, stuffed in a binder and labeled with the appropriate year. Done and done. Or if you’re really in the 21st century put it all in a folder on your company’s intranet; where it will likely never be opened again by anyone doing real work in the company.
But again, that’s OK because SWOT is doable—we can check off the list. “Strategic planning? Yup, we did a big SWOT-fest at the country club.” Simply being doable is a big deal when you’re staring down something as important and complex as “bet the business” strategic planning. It makes us feel like we are doing something substantial. SWOT is to real planning what the TSA is to real security. It is not bad—it just seems like more show than substance at the end of the day.
So, gentle reader, you have likely determined that I harbor strong feelings about the colossal waste of time that is SWOT. To be fair, I have led many a SWOT session. I have participated in dozens more. I confess I have seen, in a very few instances, the process yield some fine nuggets of strategic guidance—but only in the hands of a skillful facilitator and with the support of people who don’t over-imbue importance to the SWOT-process itself.
Most of the time SWOT analysis results in strategic constipation. The truths of your business seem stuck. The strengths and weaknesses seem to compete with one another for attention. The opportunities and threats stand out like a puzzling chess move where no matter what you do—some piece is going to get whacked. I have seen many groups stare at their results with a sense of listless apprehension. They are hesitant to suggest a course of action because their very own analysis makes seems to block them.
SWOT is like using cheap exercise equipment.
It doesn’t cost much and it doesn’t really work so you don’t feel bad for not spending much or not using it. But you do feel good that you took tangible steps to get more fit.
My call here is to end the madness. Just say no to SWOT. My new phrase is, “Let’s Not SWOT.”
I am certain that I will have stirred the wrath of SWOT lovers everywhere. I will be labeled an infidel, a heretic, a charlatan. Certainly no well-heeled strategic planning consultant can trash the most beloved planning methodology ever.
So what should we do?
- If you MUST SWOT (you know who you are) then run it as an icebreaker. Take twenty minutes and knock yourselves out. Then get on with the business of really planning.
- Do use a planning methodology. There are plenty out there. But at the same time, don’t let the methodology drive the results. Don’t kneel at the altar of any single methodology. One of my professors called this “methodolotry.” Here’s an idea; craft your own approach that fits with the ongoing strategic planning dialogue in your company.
- What’s that? You don’t have an ongoing strategic planning dialogue in your company? Then by golly you need one. This means that everyone in the company is afforded the opportunity—or better yet is required—to participate in planned, structured, data-supported strategic conversations.
- Connect the dots between mission /vision/values and developmental strategic priorities. This means that you must identify points of strategic focus every year that (a) help systematically move you to fulfill your mission step by empirical step and (b) be consistent with your core vision and values. This effort should be presented on one or two pages or slides—not in 22 tabs of the 2013 Strategic Plan Binder from Hell.
If you want learn about some new and reliable models for active strategic planning and presentations—give us a call. If you really want to show someone you love them this Valentine’s Day, send them a “SWOT Me Not”.