Let’s Give SWOT a REST

A SWOT analysis (a listing of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) is a common exercise in business planning and reached the shores of the non-profit world decades ago.  Some of you probably have experienced a SWOT analysis at your site as part of your strategic or long-range planning.  The staff and board gathers around a flipchart to list  your organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses, and then your external opportunities and threats.  Sometimes there’s a bit of confusion over definitions (what’s a threat?) or where an item should be listed (is this a strength or opportunity?).  You might feel a bit of competition to mention a particularly incisive opportunity or are sweating because you can’t name a strength (all the good ones have already been mentioned!).  Eventually, the list might be prioritized and some items consolidated so it can be typed up and included in the strategic plan as a basis for decision-making.

Despite its popularity, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to give SWOT a rest:

  • The analysis depends heavily on the people participating and it’ll always be biased in that direction.  If you conduct a SWOT exercise with board members who really aren’t involved with the organization, the analysis will probably be superficial and light.  Stock the group with lots of educators, the results will lean towards education.  There are no surprises here–people talk about what they know.  The problem is that the bias is typically not recognized and you wind up building a plan on a foundation that’s skewed or weak.
  • It’s often long on strengths and even longer on weaknesses, creating an attitude of either “gee, we’re doing well; why are we working so hard?” or “gosh, we really have a lot of problems.”  Neither situation helps propel the group forward in planning the future.  Indeed, some practioners turn the exercise on its head and call it TOWS, keeping strengths and weaknesses to the end.
  • Hardly anything is ever listed for opportunities or threats–the external factors–so that half of the data we need for the analysis is missing (but it does tell me a lot about the organization’s knowledge and awareness of their environment and community).  Most of the time, participants don’t have sufficient information to conduct a valuable SWOT analysis.
  • Items suggested are usually vague or simple platitudes that don’t get you very far.  I can predict that, “staff is great,” “outstanding collections,” and “hidden treasure” will be mentioned every time, and yet, don’t get me any closer to identifying critical issues.  When I’m facilitating, I try to unpack these statements but then I’m confronted with a paragraph of information that somehow won’t fit on the flip chart.
  • You can easily fall into “group think.” People usually aren’t willing to challenge others so after the first few suggestions, everyone else falls in line with little comment or objection.  As a facilitator you can encourage people to raise new issues but they rarely are willing to question others, especially if there are strangers or supervisors in the group.
  • Ultimately it doesn’t matter because little analysis is done; it just winds up as a list in a planning document that’s ignored.  Analyzing the items against one another (ie., matching strengths with opportunities) is often fruitless or frustrating because of the diversity, absence, or plethora of content.

So between the inherent bias and incomplete information, SWOT is usually not a helpful exercise for small organizations.  I admit it was one of my favorite tools and I’ve sat in or led dozens of these SWOT exercises, but I’ve been growing uneasy for years and from now on, it’ll be repurposed to:

  1. sort and summarize data so it can be easily grasped and understood by me and others.  Planning often includes conducting interviews, reviewing reports, and pursuing research and the resulting data can be overwhelming.  Organizing the information by strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, or threats helps manage the tangles–but I’ll do this by myself as part of my analysis, not as a group exercise.
  2. take the temperature of a group.  Sometimes you need to know a group’s perspective and SWOT is one of the easiest ways to collect their interests, concerns, and biases.  I’ll keep the group distinct–for example, only trustees, only members, or only school teachers–so I have a clear understanding of each group’s perspective.  Mixing perspectives will give me mixed results.

I’m not alone in my doubts about the veracity and value of SWOT exercises and even lastest edition of the classic Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations by Michael Allison and Jude Kaye has pushed SWOT back a step in the process and offers an alternative.  Its origins may suggest why it’s not always appropriate.  The Stanford Research Institute developed SWOT in the mid-1960s to help managers of large organizations to annually prioritize their tasks.  It also worked differently:  rather than being divided into external and internal issues, they were sorted by short-term and long-term projects.  Over the years it’s been adopted by organizations of all sizes to conduct environmental assessments for long-term planning.  That wasn’t its intent and perhaps that’s why it isn’t as useful as expected.

As many of you know, I’m concerned about the sustainability of historic sites, especially those with budgets of less than $2.5 million and staffs of less than a dozen people.  It seems that traditional planning techniques don’t help with decision-making in these situations, so I’ve been intently looking at alternatives such as lean manufacturing and entrepreneurial startups.  I’ve read more business books in the last few months than I ever expected to read in my lifetime.  I’ll share what I learn in this blog but if you have found useful exercises or approaches, please let me know.  In the meantime, I hope you’ll rethink the value of conducting a SWOT analysis for your organization.

11 thoughts on “Let’s Give SWOT a REST

  1. Sandra Smith

    Max, you’re at risk of being labeled an iconoclast! But I agree they have limited value. Most SWOTs I’ve participated in have either turned into a lovefest or an airing of grievances, much like group therapy. And there always seems to be a void afterwards, where the group wonders what to do with the information and is overwhelmed into inaction.

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    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Iconoclast? Let’s see, that’s from Greek meaning icon-breaker. Today it can mean nonconformist, rebel, dissenter, radical. I’ll accept that label for the good of our profession!

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  2. Mary Seelhorst

    I was interested to read about the origins of SWOT. The first time I participated in one of these sessions it was part of an effort to create a long-range (10 year) plan for a museum. When asked for a “‘weakness” I made the case that there really isn’t such a thing as a long-range plan. You can set a target for ten years out, but that’s not an actionable plan. You need a medium-range (3 or 4 year) plan with a series of targeted projects, developed annually, to get you there. After 3 or 4 years you need to reassess anyway, because circumstances always change. That definitely did not fit on the flip chart.
    I can see how SWOT might work if it was used as originally intended–part of an annual priority-setting process in a group with an agreed-upon plan. It seemed pointless to me as a way to create a plan in the first place.

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    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks, Mary. I had the same reactions in many planning sessions–setting objectives more than three years in advance seemed to be pointless (and suffering such tedious work establishing assignments and deadlines, then inducing panic and anxiety when faced by that long list). I’m becoming more convinced that we should create an annual list of objectives and sort it by priority and phase (i.e., those things that have to happen first before something else can happen). High priority and phase 1 items go on this year’s list and the rest gets placed in year 2 or later.

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  3. Sarah

    Thank you for reading all those business books on our behalf. I look forward to finding out about the most valuable ideas you’ve found. Keep writing!!

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  4. Bruce Whitmarsh

    A few years ago I participated in some leadership training conducted by La Piana Consultants. The firms managing partner has some interesting thoughts on non-profit strategic planning and I found their “real time” approach intriguing

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    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks, Bruce. I read David La Piana’s “Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real-Time Strategic Planning in a Rapid Response World” book last year and liked his ideas of cyclical planning/doing and use of strategy filters, and he was among the first people that I encountered that criticized SWOT (and prompted me to look at this more closely). After I finish reading this stack of strategic planning books, I’ll have to review his book again and see how it holds up (I wasn’t sure about the exercises and worksheets).

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  5. Monta Lee Dakin

    I’ll be interested to see – after you finish reading your stack of books – what YOU suggest would be a good planning tool. SWOT has been useful to my organizations. And so has a one-on-one with my boss at evaluation time when we would review together what was done in the past year and decide together what the plans would be for the coming year. I always referred to the latter plan as I knew I would be evaluated on it at the end of the year. We got a lot done doing these annual plans, but I always felt it needed to be supplemented by more global thinking that allowed for a plan to build relationships and programs over time.

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    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      I’m anxious to figure out what it might be too! Now plowing through “Strategy Safari” by Henry Mintzberg et al and “The Startup Owner’s Manual” by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf. How can there be so many books on business planning and strategy?!

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