Anyone who’s sat through a strategic workshop at anytime during the past decade will be familiar with the SWOT analysis. Simply put, it stands for Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats and has informed not only planning days and leadership forums but also a large majority of the decisions that executive teams have made regarding the future of their businesses.
The logic is rarely questioned – play to your strengths, sure up your weaknesses, and be vigilant to opportunities and threats.
One of the issues with this approach however, is that it can lead to some rather predictable thinking and formulaic results and may in fact increase the risks we face – even more so than simply leaving things to chance.
Often, in our work with boards or executive leadership teams, we’ll start with a typical SWOT analysis, but then flip it on its head – a process that can be just as informative.
For instance, what we’ve found is that strengths are typically industry or category generic. In a room filled with carpenters, being good with a hammer is hardly an asset. In this context a contextual strength becomes table stakes or cost of entry.
In fact, we like to suggest that strengths should in fact be considered vulnerabilities. They’re the things we think we know. The things we rarely question. This confidence and assuredness in our own ability can be costly as we end up playing in a commoditized market where strengths are neither unique nor considered a competitive advantage.
Contrast that with our weaknesses. We believe our faults and our foibles are in fact opportunities for uniqueness and remarkability. Typically, they’re unique to us or to the culture of our organization and yet these are the things we try to hide under the carpet or bury in our organization’s public face when an embracing of a weakness is not only distinctive, it engenders trust. When we convinced Coca-Cola to admit publically to commercial failure for the first time in their history, it not only changed the way they engaged with their customer base, it stimulated the most successful brand resurrection in the company’s history.
Now let’s look at opportunities and threats:
If opportunities are so glaring that they are borne out of a cursory SWOT analysis, then there is every chance that our competitors are not only looking in the same direction, but may in fact be much further advanced in their exploration than we are.
Which is not to say that identified opportunities should be ignored, simply that they may not provide the competitive lift we desire.
As for threats – an externalization of threat is also an error in our opinion. If the greatest threat to your business, organization or cause or movement is not yourself, then you’re in trouble.
A better strategy than trying to avoid or evade threats is to manufacture them in-house – to future hack your organization and lead your industry’s change rather than simply managing it.
So what does this all mean for the future of SWOT?
1. Learn to question your Strengths
Rather than seeing them as assets, consider how your strengths expose you to risk or else render you generic in a commoditized market place.
2. Own, embrace and amplify your weaknesses
Consider how you might find uniqueness in your weakness. How could your disadvantage be turned into an asset? Small doesn’t have to mean vulnerable, it can also mean more nimble, more personalized, more exclusive. We need to move beyond a binary view of our attributes and develop a capacity to see opportunities where no one is looking. Which leads rather nicely to…
3. Don’t look for opportunities, go to where there a few and create them
If the best way to predict the future is to create it, we need to learn how to identify not just blue oceans, but to also explore what lies in the less exciting regions of our category.
4. Be the greatest threat to your own business & host an “Insider Revolution™”
Don’t wait for change to dictate your future to you. Innovation should be category leadership and it is a leader’s role to set the course, not just for their organization but also for the future of their industry. This requires a willingness to break what’s currently working.
The S.W.O.T. analysis will always have its place as a strategic planning tool, but perhaps, we could be using it in a less predictable way.