SWOT is the Pumpkin-Spice Latte of Strategic Processes

Contributor: Ned Howey

I know it’s not common to come across a post on strategic process that’s as sassy as a teen magazine article, but it’s summertime for us here and I’m just off my first vacation after the year and a half - from hell. And besides, I’m gay as a goose which I believe affords me some right to sassiness in all endeavors. So here we go: 

Someone has to say it: SWOT is the Pumpkin-Spice Latte of strategic processes. 

Blasé. Boring. Basic.

For those of you fortunate enough not to know - SWOT analysis stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. It is a strategic technique used to evaluate the contextual standing of a project as a basis for planning. It usually is presented in a 2x2 matrix and team members take their turns filling in their little bits with sharpies on butcher paper while a facilitator, consultant, or boss stands aside smiling at all they are accomplishing. It is used across businesses, NGOs, and governments. It is as ubiquitous as frat boys playing beer pong.  And it's about as exciting as a Nicolas Cage film. Perfect... if you have no soul. 

The thing about SWOT is, it does kind of make everyone on the team feel like they are on the same page. You can all just drop your assessment of what’s wrong and what’s right and move on with your day thinking you’ve got it all sorted without truly having any more direction than you started with. 

Personally every time I hear ‘SWOT’ I get a tightening of the jaw, a wrinkle in my brow, and creeping tension in my back. I know I’m not normal to be triggered by such banal and harmless processes with a questionable name, but come on… It doesn’t do much at all really to set teams up for an effective objective-based strategic plan. And here’s the reasons why I think that is: 

1. Strategic context assessment is only valuable in terms of the direction you are going. 

One of my main qualms with SWOT is that it's not defined in terms of the necessary actions and steps that are needed to achieve a defined objective. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses in general sure seems great, but I actually think there is little value in these definitions in terms of planning when not placed in relation to the direction. Maybe your team’s greatest strength is that it can sing every Katy Perry song on key, and while that might be great for the company BBQ, it doesn’t bring you much closer to your goal. 

I like to think not in terms of strengths, but leverages. What assets, resources, relative advantages, experiences, etc. does your team have to leverage in its plan towards building something specific and finite. If the emphasis is not going towards the strategic need and rather the level of strength or weakness in the context, it has a tendency to bend the direction of the objective. 

Weaknesses are a good example of this. Maybe you are using technology that is outdated and old and causing you frustrations with inputting new people into a database. All the focus can easily go there when your team is struggling with that day to day and it seems like your biggest weakness. However, without knowing the value and strategic role the new people play towards your goal, prioritising addressing this specific issue could be putting all the resources in the wrong place for your strategic plan. 

SWOT is predominantly a context assessment (with some forward-thinking in the OT part). From what I have seen context is truly essential to strategic planning, but always considered last so it can be thought through in terms of the defined objective and priority actions needed to arrive at the objective. Which leads me to my next gripe with SWOT: 


2. In strategic planning, the order of exploration is everything. 

In my years of doing strategy I’ve found that the most important element to uncovering wisdom that is already there within the group and just needs to be teased out, is the order of the process that helps groups think things through. The order lays out the relationships between strategic elements and takes them out of the day to day where the psychological pull of frustrations, personal desires (“agenda”), and stumbling blocks keeps them from moving forward with a map to address the bigger picture. 

In my own work, what I’ve found works best for order with movement-building strategy is to work deeply on defining the various objectives and pushing towards consensus among the most important ones before moving forward. We describe this process in more depth in our recent article “The Horizon of Possibility: Tectonica’s Method for Social Change Strategy”

In terms of strategy as a definition of a plan from point A to point B, I think it's key to first get everyone on the same page with what point B is, and walk backwards from there. I find SWOT tends to lead groups in the other direction - focussed on what’s immediately in front of them, without truly questioning the status quo and assumptions of their current work and direction. Which leads me to my last point to kvetch about: 


3. SWOT avoids key conflicts across the team in its strategy development while encouraging groups to get muddled in fighting about all the wrong things. 

Conflict is essential to strategic planning. From the facilitator’s key agitational role in helping the group not avoid key issues that its been dancing around, to ensuring the best plan derived from a diversity of viewpoints, productive conflict on a planning team is the tool with which great victories are built. 

That said, conflict can also keep you immobilised if it is a destructive rather than a productive conflict. A gridlock battle of wills can result in personal agendas and attachments by individuals to forcing others in the group to see things the way they do. Certainly the nature of group dynamics is one which tends towards polarisation of ideas - members of the group usually presenting their idea in contrast to one another. In day-to-day dynamics this can come out as an eternal battle resulting in the grand “let's agree to disagree” and no strategic movement forward. 

While it is important that all underlying problems need to be presented, so that all voices are heard, where group’s often get stuck in the weeds is with trying to reach a consensus around how important those underlying causes are. While it goes a bit against conventional wisdom, I firmly believe that you do not need firm agreement across a team on the causes of a problem in order to agree upon a way forward. The way forward is where the energy for conflict and consensus should be put. The focus should be on the development of solutions where the productive conflict is needed. 

With SWOT, the “throw it up on the board” in a cute little tic tac toe-style approach has two potential results: 

1) You spend your whole time as a team fighting whether it's actually a weakness, an opportunity, etc. or 

2) You never get into a conflict about what it's relevant to your objective. 

Once conflict is focussed on where it should be - the way forward - something very interesting emerges: you discover the key underlying paradoxes which good strategy can come from. You can usually smell these when you find a recommendation meeting a lot of attention and also “but”, “but”, “but”, from the team. A certain tension begins to emerge and you are likely on the trail of an underlying paradox of your organisation. 

In our strategic methods here at Tectonica, we look intently for operational paradoxes when analysing organisations. These barriers usually underlie some of the organisation's largest barriers in their efforts towards their mission. But unlike simple problems where something is simply being done wrong, or where more capacity or resources are needed in a certain area, the operational paradoxes in fact usually are an ongoing sticking point because they are partly the underlying success of the organisation, as well acting as their major barrier. And in fact, just addressing the problem and not recognising their positive role can cause major damage to organisations. (Hence the “but”, “but”, but”s of rightful concern.) Moving beyond them is not just a matter of pointing out errors, but developing strategic solutions for new ways of operating that unravel the paradox and build off both the strength within the paradox and address the barrier. And that is the true strategic work of a team’s planning. 

Has your organisation grown incredibly because of its renown level of care to personal relationships - but now it can’t scale further because you are required to keep everything one-to-one to upkeep quality? - That’s an underlying paradox. 

Does your organisation have powerful leadership with a vision that unites and a message about the community but you are unable to decentralise the decision-making beyond one powerful person? That’s also an underlying paradox. 

These paradoxes are the key opportunities to develop new approaches, new mindsets, and the agreement to step out of the current box everyone is trapped unable to see beyond, in order to result in something beyond the current status quo results. This is an unravelling that a focus on conflict around solutions can bring out, but you’re not likely to ever get that from a damn SWOT matrix. 

So I say leave the SWOT. Step away from the Pumpkin-spice latte of strategic process and dig in on some true strategic planning.