Strategic Planning Retreats | Facilitating a SWOT Analysis

Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats or SWOT analysis may be one of the oldest techniques in the book, but it still brings results if it is done right. Unfortunately this is not often the case.

Meeting Facilitators International has facilitated hundreds of these sessions at Strategic Planning Retreats and we find that by making some changes to how the analysis is created, we can make this old standby even better.

Strengths and Weaknesses

We see three problems when we look at the lists of strengths and weaknesses that our clients show us from previous sessions.

  1. The lists are rarely ranked in any kind of priority sequence. Are these twenty strengths really of equally important?
  2. 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 relationships with customers, and partners, or …?)
  3. There are no connections from these lists to anything else. The lists were brainstormed by some group and have not been used since.

By changing the basic approach all three problems can be eliminated. There are two different facilitation approaches that we will use depending on the situation.

Organizational Strengths and Weaknesses

This approach is our preferred approach for non profit boards or for functional units of a larger organization.

To identify the strengths of the organization we have everyone at the planning session take turns relating short stories describing a recent success or accomplishment of the organization. Once each story has been told the entire group then discusses the story to identify the keys to this success (i.e. strengths.) Once all of the stories have been told we then prepare a combined list of strengths and priority rank this 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 up the number of top five votes each strength receives we can rank the list.) Having addressed accomplishments and strengths we then do the same for disappointments and weaknesses.

At the end of this process we have a well defined, priority ranked list of specific strengths and weaknesses that can be illustrated by the recent accomplishments and disappointments of the organization.

Competitive Strengths and Weaknesses

The second approach we use looks at not only your strengths and weaknesses, but at your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses as well. It is our preferred approach for strategic business units or entire companies.

The process starts by identifying all of your major competitors and putting them on a ladder with the market share leader on top. We  then discuss what each organization is known for — e.g. low cost aggressive sales, or high quality high touch, etc. Next we discuss who is winning share and why, and who is losing share and why. We may also discuss the broader competition including regional players or “mom and pop” operations and how they get sales. Finally we will consider alternatives including “do it yourself” or alternative product and services offers.

Once we have these “Snapshot” profiles we then discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the group. The key is that the strengths should be unique or nearly unique to an organization. What you will find is that people will be far more rigorous in attributing a strength to an organization when they are thinking about your competitors at the same time. What you will get is a shorter, more actionable list of strengths and weaknesses. If the list of strengths for any of the companies becomes too long we will once again priority rank it, but this is rarely an issue.

Once you have Strengths and Weaknesses for of all your competitors, and for your organization you can go onto very interesting next steps. One of our favorites is to play some war games where people are assigned to the competitors and are asked to grow the competitor’s sales at the strength of their own company.

Facilitation of Opportunities

Identifying opportunities can be more straightforward. People spend a lot of time thinking about this and the first thing we want to do is capture all of that thinking.

A straightforward brainstorming approach works well here. If we have done an Environmental Scan we will extend the brainstorming to include ways to benefit from the major Political, Economic, Social, Technological and Competitive trends identified. We will also go back to the Strengths and Weaknesses just identified to see how we can leverage the strengths and mitigate the weaknesses.

If we have done a “Win Loss” analysis we will work with this and build the lessons learned into the opportunities list. We will also do the same if we have done a customer segmentation to identify your most attractive and least attractive customers.

Having completed all of this we will have far more opportunities than we can pursue so we go into a priority ranking exercise. We use a variety of tools here depending in part on what else has already been accomplished with respect to strategy or to higher level goals and objectives.

Facilitation of Threats

Threats are another area where we have revised our approach significantly.

We use two techniques here, one to identify external threats and one to identify internal threats.

The external threats analysis is based on “war games” where we have members of the planning team develop strategies for competitors that we have selected. The internal threats analysis is based on a “pre-mortem” where people are told that the organization failed to accomplish all of its goals and that they are to use their knowledge of the organization and the environment to explain what went wrong and why.

For more details on this and our entire approach to facilitating strategic retreats why not contact us?

From Our Clients

“Over the past five or six years we have worked with Bruce more than a dozen times as a focus group moderator for our pharmaceutical and medical device clients. The clients are always impressed with how quickly Bruce picks up challenging concepts and how easily he communicates them. The high-quality feedback and insight he draws from the focus group participants is what we are all looking for. Bruce’s track record in exceeding client objectives makes me extremely comfortable recommending him to any of our clients regardless of therapeutic area.”

David Small

Vice President Events, Frontline Medical Communications, Inc.

“We wanted to find somebody unbiased, with no agenda, who could lead the retreat and pull in all points of view. Bruce did this and more. He brought some clever ways to make sure that we fully explored our ideas and he forced the discipline of setting priorities and of committing to an action plan. We have now used him three years in a row since everyone sees the value he adds and trusts his process.”

Mary Todd Peterson

CEO, Medmarc Insurance Group

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