Monday, September 17, 2012

The Trouble With SWOTs

In my family, we say, it’s not really a party unless the M&M’s are in a bowl. For some people, strategic planning is not really strategic planning unless there are SWOTs. Two frequent questions when a strategic planning process is being considered or is underway are, “Do you do SWOTs”? “When are we going to do a SWOT analysis?”

Although casually flung about, people often don’t know what SWOT stands for and what the analysis (or matrix) is intended to accomplish. A SWOT analysis evaluates the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats affecting an organization.
• Strengths are characteristics of an organization (or project) that give it an advantage over other organizations.
• Weaknesses are characteristics (or limitations) that place an organization at a disadvantage relative to other organization.
• Opportunities are external chances to improve an organization's performance.
• Threats are elements in the environment that could cause trouble for an organization.
Strengths and Weaknesses are internal to an and areas in which an organization has control. Opportunities and Threats are external areas in which an organization is able to exercise little control. Strengths and Opportunities are helpful factors while Weaknesses and Threats are harmful. A SWOT analysis is a way for an organization to capitalize on strengths and opportunities, be alert to weaknesses and threats, and avoid them or soften their impact by leveraging its strengths and recognized opportunities.

I appreciate the symmetry of a SWOT analysis, consideration of internal and external factors, and an equal focus on helpful and harmful factors. But unless a SWOT analysis is conducted with rigor and Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats are selected carefully, the tool is weak. An understandable tendency is for a group to generate as many positives, either Strengths or Opportunities, as possible. Equally understandable is the scant appetite most groups have for naming the negatives associated with efforts and enterprises to which they give their time, money, and passion. Wanting to ignore looming threats that could quash hopes or demand more of volunteers is a reasonable impulse, but not a helpful response.

A SWOT analysis was requested as part of a strategic planning retreat for a museum board not long ago. To focus the analysis, I developed a strategic backdrop that synthesized readily available information about the museum’s audience, community and stakeholders, facility, leadership, exhibits and programs. In the retreat the board was going to sort through the critical strategic and operational issues into strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing the museum.

“A great staff” was proposed as the first strength. It was followed by a long list of activities the museum had worked on and was proud of: weekly programs, a partnership with the library, a workday to clean-up exhibits, adding a new corporate sponsor, the community. Nothing was said about the board president who was a bit of a bully or the fact that the facility was obviously inadequate in several key respects.

Perhaps my facilitation allowed the strengths and opportunities to be extensive, the weaknesses and threats to be skimpy, and at least one issue to be proposed for all four quadrants. I know from other retreats and talking with other planners who use SWOTs, however, this is not unusual.

That’s the trouble with SWOTs. They end up as four lists with somewhat different emphases but no real sense of priority. When a board lacks the practice, shared understanding, or political will, a SWOT becomes a list that leads to flabby goals and a casual commitment to executing the plan. Anne Ackerson recently wrote about precisely this on her blog, Leading By Design.

That’s why I thought my strategic planning buddy, Andrea Fox Jensen was particularly brilliant the other day. She said, we need to ask, ‘Where are you hitting a home run that you really need to?’ and 'Where are you not hitting a home run that you really need to?’ Asking about completed home runs frames a question to get precise, honest answers about how the museum has done in key areas. This question goes directly to achievement and shifts away from intention. Even good intentions and the best of intentions are not results. There are no sort of or almost home runs. Answers to this pair of questions helps distinguish what areas to change and what not to change.

Imagine such an approach as an alternative to a SWOT analysis during a strategic planning retreat with the following questions.
• Where are you hitting a home run with your stakeholders? (Prompt: aligning with community priorities, strong relationships, a sought after and trusted partner) Where are you not hitting a home run with stakeholders that you should be?
• Where are you hitting a home run in serving your audiences? (Prompt: on-going understanding of your audiences, great visitor service, accessible service) Where are you not hitting a home run in serving the audiences that you should be? 
• Where are you hitting a home run in creating extraordinary experiences that are valued and effective? (Prompt: developed with visitor input, engaging to priority audience groups, evidence of impact) Where are you not hitting a home run in creating extraordinary, effective experiences?
• Where are you hitting a home run with a diversified funding base? (Prompt: its change over the last 5 years; how you compare to similar museums; areas of growth) Where are you not hitting a home run with diversifying revenue that you should be?
• Where are you hitting a home run as a valued community resource? (Prompt: a great reputation, distinct capacity or asset, create value through research, teacher professional development, etc.) Where are you not hitting a home run with as a valued community resource?

The focus of these questions is by no means limited to the areas above. For one museum communication, collections, and facility might be critical areas to explore in meaningful ways For other museums, governance, internal capacity, and might be critical. Focusing on areas that matter and in ways that seriously need to be understood is what is important. So play ball!


  1. Hi Jeanne,
    Thanks for posting this. I hate SWOTs and this is precisely why - they are not rigorous and they usually end up being lists of things. I like your idea of home-runs!

  2. Hi Jeanne,

    Thanks for the article and here are some swot analysis examples that I found might ad some value to your article.

  3. Shalin, this looks like an interesting and helpful tool for developing a more rigorous set of SWOTs. Thank you.