Why Not to SWOT

Don't SWOTIt’s time for another strategic plan – yay!

Wait, that wasn’t your reaction?

Is it because you didn’t enjoy your last planning sessions? Or because that last plan didn’t really make a difference? If you are frustrated by the lack of significant results from your prior plans, and you’re not looking forward to your group’s planning time, you are far from alone.

In my decades as a planning consultant, with stints as an Executive Director and as a Board planning chair, I believe I have pinpointed one major cause. It’s starting wrong.

SWOT is a tool used by many planning pros, to analyze an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. And while it is well-intentioned, in my experience, SWOT is actually an obstacle to good planning. Far from being tested and true, it’s a process that makes good planning way harder than it needs to be.

I’ve had everyone in the room stand up and cheer when I said we weren’t starting with a SWOT. And they’ve left at day’s end saying they had fun and felt inspired.

Why is a SWOT the wrong place to start?
SWOT roots the planning in today (or as Henry Mintzberg, the international guru of planning puts it, in your organization’s current perceptions). David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, says that since we can only focus on one thing at a time, looking at the past actually dis-allows looking forward.

We plan everything in our lives – our careers, our education, getting to work on time –by working backward from our desired destination, EXCEPT when we plan for our organizations. Do you start your vacation planning from today (I’ll take one step towards the beach) or do you have a vision of what you want your vacation to be like, and create your plans around that vision? If you did a SWOT without such a vision, you’d have information with no context for analysis. Suppose you don’t have a passport – is that a weakness for your vacation planning? Not if you are planning to be a tourist in your own country. And if you are traveling outside the country, it’s not a weakness, it’s just something that must be addressed.

Without a shared concept of the future, planning participants cannot analyze which changes or capacity issues matter. Often, they cannot even determine which are positive and which are negative, leading to the same issues appearing as both opportunities and threats on the flip chart. People have often told me that’s when they lose faith in the entire planning process.

What to do instead
Rather than starting with an analysis of what’s not working, effective plans start by imaging the highest potential of your community. That simple step lets you clearly see what needs to change to create that kind of community. Now your steps can head in the right direction, and you can build on the strengths that matter.

Research shows it is much more effective to build on strengths than try to fix weaknesses. If something is outside your core competencies, you can think of that as an internal weakness you have to stop and fix before you can make progress. Or you can think of it as a partnership opportunity, a strength to build upon.

Other Great Reasons Not to SWOT
There are other reasons not to SWOT. Some of those include:

  • SWOT saps energy by focusing on weaknesses as much or more than strengths, leaving less energy for creative, innovating thinking. SWOT can be exhausting.
  • People often leave a SWOT session feeling hopeless, believing the cause they are passionate about has almost no chance of succeeding. I’ve had organizational leaders tell me they get as far as their car, then sit there sobbing. The list of weaknesses and threats are usually three times longer than the strengths and opportunities. Why would we design an exercise to make our people depressed?
  • Because SWOTs mean exposing weaknesses, they are almost always done internally, without community engagement. We can’t let anyone see the dirty laundry! Planning with the community then keeps those internal issues hidden.
  • SWOT hijacks potential and possibilities with all the reasons a project won’t work or reasons why we can’t do it. That mobilizes the wrong kind of energy.
  • SWOT can be used by a control freak for ulterior motives, as all the group planning time and energy gets used up in what is supposed to be only the start of the plan. With no time left for group planning, an ill-intentioned Executive Director can then draft and finalize the plan alone. I have sadly seen this happen more than once.

On top of all that, SWOT can be a waste of money. In Strategy Safari, Henry Mintzberg references a study of companies that used SWOTs “yet not one subsequently used the output within the later stages of the strategy process.”  Can you afford to waste the time of your board and senior staff, and maybe the cost of a consultant, on something with so little upside and so much downside?

Sadly, I have seen organizations that did use the results, and that proved to be worse. They rooted their whole plan in fixing the internal weaknesses in the SWOT. The plan then did zero to move the org forward, because you can’t build strength by aiming at weakness.

Don’t think that because I won’t SWOT, I am not a realist. I strongly believe in understanding the external and internal environments for our organizations. There are genuine conditions to be addressed for every organization, and plans have to include practical steps to address them. Check out the resources at creatingthefuture.org for approaches that work and don’t involve a SWOT.

In summary, when you are considering a planning approach:

  • Start with the future.
  • Build on the strengths that matter.
  • Don’t SWOT!!!

And if you can’t convince your organization to avoid it entirely (we understand about resistance to change), move it to later in the process, where it can’t do nearly as much damage.

Many thanks to these Creating the Future fellows who contributed to the “Why Not to SWOT” list: Justin Pollock, Ann Vermel, Alexandra Peters, Lisa Humenik, Deborah Loesch-Griffin, Garth Nowland-Foreman, Kevin D. Monroe, Dimitri Petropolis, Bill Musick, Nancy Iannone and Hildy Gottlieb.

3 thoughts on “Why Not to SWOT”

  1. Why SWOT when you can SOAR. The appreciative inquiry (strengths-based) folks have long developed their own alternative, which focusses instead on Strengths, Opportunities (so far so good), but then on Aspirations and Results. My interpretation is that while SWOT is a 2×2 grid with Positives/Negatives on one axis and Internal/External on the other, we might understand SOAR as a 2×2 grid with the helpful Internal/External still as one axis, but Now/Future as the other axis (instead of focussing on the negatives and the past). Read more about from Stavros, Coopperrider & Kelley (2003) http://design.umn.edu/about/intranet/documents/Strategic_Inquiry_Appreciative_Intent.pdf

  2. SOAR is much less depressing, so it doesn’t sap energy and turn people off like SWOTs do. But is still focused on the organization. Organizational strengths simply don’t matter if they are not what the community needs. I do very much favour a strengths-based approach, but only in the context of a vision for the community and the ethical values that we wish to create in the community and model in our work.

    In other words, some of an organization’s strengths shouldn’t even appear on the SOAR chart. They aren’t helpful any more (a tough lesson for staff and volunteers who are proud of work that mattered in the past but the world changed). Starting with aspirations would make much more sense in the community benefit sector.

  3. I think SWOT is compelling in it’s simplicity and places who we are and where we are in a nice neat box. That alone should be a warning. Strategy is far broader, deeper and more complex than this. Henry Mintzberg also says SWOT is not helpful because our strengths are contextual. What makes us successful in our market may cripple us in another.

    I still have many clients asking for a SWOT and try to educate them otherwise. Sometimes this puts them off me and I find myself wavering.


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