Strategic Planning FacilitationHow to facilitate a SWOT
Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats or SWOT analysis may be one of the oldest tools in the book. But, it still brings results if it is done right. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
Meeting Facilitators International has facilitated hundreds of SWOTs as part of a Strategic Planning process. We find that by making some changes to how the analysis is done, we can make this old standby even better.
In this article we describe some common problems we see in client SWOTs. We then describe how to lead or facilitate a SWOT Analysis workshop or meeting.
We see five common problems when we review a client’s previous SWOT.
#1. Vague Wording
The wording is so broad that it is hard to know just exactly what the strength is. (e.g. “Our People“, I am sure you have great people but, what is the strength? Is it their ability to come up with innovative solutions to problems? Is it their ability to develop and maintain strong client relationships? Is it their industry experience and knowledge? etc.) The more specific, and the more unique a strength is the more powerful it can be.
#2. No Grounding
You can brainstorm an impressive list of strengths. But where is the proof? On the other hand if you have very high Net Promoter Scores, then you have something to say. Now you can claim, “Loyal Customers,” or “Industry Leading Customer Service”.
#3. Not Unique
If four out of five of your main competitors can claim the same strength, is it a strength? No it is not. A strength is only a strength if it can help you achieve some goal. Being the same as everybody else does not help.
#4. Lack of Prioritization
The lists are rarely ranked in any kind of priority sequence. Are these twenty strengths equally important? I doubt it. If you know what your top five strengths then you can really do something. The same goes for your top five weaknesses.
#5. Never Used Again
This problem is likely caused by the previous four. The SWOT exercise gets done, a list is prepared, never to be used again. More time gets spent in “word-smithing” the list than in using the tool to develop a winning strategy.
Change Your Approach to creating a SWOT Analysis
If you change your basic approach, then you can eliminate all these problems. For strengths and weaknesses, we use one of two different approaches. One is based on Organizational Strengths and Weaknesses. The other on Competitive Strengths and Weaknesses.
How To Facilitate a SWOT Analysis | Organizational Strengths and Weaknesses
This is our preferred approach for Non-Profit Associations or for functional units.
Accomplishments & Underlying Strengths
We begin by brainstorming a list of accomplishments. These have to be specific. Some good examples would be;
- Achieving a Net Promoter Score of 7.5
- Reducing Employee Turnover by 25%
- Successful Launch of Rebranded Website
Once we have the list, we then take turns “telling the story” behind one of the accomplishments. The story telling makes sure that the details are fresh in everyone’s mind. After each story we ask;
“What does this accomplishment tell us about our strengths?”
When all the stories have been told we review our work for common themes and compelling ideas. From this we prepare a consolidated list of strengths. We then priority rank the list. (We do this with a multivote. In a multivote each person would be asked to pick the top five strengths from a list of twenty. By simply counting the number of top five votes each strength receives we can rank the list.)
Disappointments & Underlying Weaknesses
Having addressed your strengths, we now turn to weaknesses. We use a similar approach only this time we are looking at disappointments. It is important to note that not all disappointments are indicative of a weakness. We may discuss a disappointment and conclude, “Well that did not work out very well, let’s not do it again.”
The Final List of Strengths and Weaknesses
At the end of the process, you will have a well defined, priority ranked list of strengths and weaknesses. Every strength can be traced back to your accomplishments. And every weakness can be traced back to a disappointment. Later on, these genuine strengths and weaknesses will be invaluable in identifying your best opportunities and your biggest threats.
How To Facilitate a SWOT Analysis | Competitive Strengths and Weaknesses
This approach identifies strengths and weaknesses using competitive comparisons. It is our preferred approach for strategic business units or entire companies.
Who are Your Competitors?
The process starts by creating a list of your major competitors. This must be done on a “market by market” basis. The definition of a market may be based on geography, customer type, or product type. These markets need to well defined, and at the right level of granularity. If you don’t define them tightly enough, the comparisons will have little value. If you are too tight, you will cause a lot of duplication and waste a lot of effort.
You should start with the people responsible for the segments. Ask your Regional Market Managers or Sales Managers if they all see the same competitors. If they do, you can go National. If not, you need to go Regional, or State or perhaps even lower. The same concept applies to Customer Segments, and Product Segments.
When creating the list do not just list your “look alike” competition. If you sell a consumer service, do not lose sight of the “Do it Yourself” alternative. If you sell a product, do not ignore alternative products, or services.
If there are a lot of small players you can lump these “Mom and Pops” together, if they all operate the same way. If not, and there are good ones, and bad ones, you need to break these out.
Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of, “Nobody does exactly what we do, so we don’t have any real competitors”. Unless every single person or company in the world that could use your service, used it, then you have competitors. These lost customers simply solved their problems another way.
Having identified your competitors for a particular segment we can now profile them. We start by putting them on a ladder, based on market share. Your company also goes on this ladder.
What are they known for?
Once we know who your competitors are, we want to know what they are known for. Are they Private Equity backed and doing a roll up? Are they a National Franchise? Are they low cost poor quality? Are they market disruptors? etc. Give each competitor a “one sentence” description. Do the same for yourself. (This will not be easy!)
Winners and Losers
At this point I like to discuss who is wining share, and why, and who is losing share and why. This will give us great insight into some key strengths, and weaknesses.
Individual Competitor’s Strengths
Now that we have a “snapshot” of the competitive players in the market, we can focus in on strengths and weaknesses. We discuss your competitors one at a time looking only for strengths. Keep in mind…
- Something that all or nearly all the competitors have is a strength for no one.
- Some things might be a strength for one group and a weakness for others. “Deep pockets” or “strong balance sheet” would be an example.
- The most interesting strengths are unique or nearly unique to one competitor. These will become the foundation of your strategy.
Individual Competitor’s Weaknesses
Once you have completed the work on strengths use the same process for weaknesses.
Your Strengths and Weaknesses
I like to facilitate the discussion of the client’s strengths and weaknesses last. When all of your competitor’s strengths are on the table you will be much more selective in describing your own. The list you prepare will be far shorter and more powerful than one created by brainstorming. These lists are invaluable later in the process when we explore, “How are you going to win?” They will also help you identify your biggest opportunities and threats.
How To Facilitate a SWOT Analysis | Opportunities
Identifying opportunities can be more straightforward. Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about opportunities. The first thing we want to do is capture all of that thinking.
- A straightforward brainstorming approach is a good start. Alternatively, we often collect ideas before the session using an online survey.
- You can extend the list by reviewing your Environmental Scan, assuming you have done one.
- The work on Competitive Strengths and Weaknesses is an excellent source of ideas. So is your work on Organizational Strengths and Weaknesses.
- In an “RFP” or “Bid Based” business a “Win Loss analysis” should be completed. It too will be a great source of new ideas.
- If you are an Association or other membership based business “Exit Interviews” and “New Member Interviews” should be conducted as they will yield a wealth of practical, actionable ideas.
At this stage we are concerned with generating a comprehensive list of opportunities. Later in the process we will prioritize these and develop action plans.
How To Facilitate a SWOT Analysis | Threats
Threats are another area where we have revised our approach significantly.
We use a “pre-mortem” to identify threats. We do this late in the process, after we have set priorities and established an action plan. We tell the participants that we can see the future and that;
“Things did not turn out exactly as you had hoped and planned“
We then tell them that the crystal ball is hazy and that we don’t know what went wrong or why. We then break them out in groups and challenge them to figure out what went wrong and why. The group’s draw on everything you have learned in the process to date. The results of the Environmental Scan, the other part of the SWOT. etc.
I am always amazed at how consistent the answers are when we reassemble as one group. We seem to know what the threats are, but do we talk about them. More importantly do we take action.
Control, Influence, Beyond Your Influence
Some of the threats identified will be something that you can control. Others you can influence. And some will be beyond your influence. We discuss this as a group. We also discuss what actions you are going to take as part of your plan to address these risks. Some actions will reduce the likelihood, others will mitigate the damage. These actions become part of the plan.
If you would like to explore how we can help you build a better strategic plan, please give us a call. The initial consultation is always free.