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  • Erin Bass

Strategic Planning: Harnessing the Power of SWOT

Ahhhh, SWOT analysis. It seems to be the beginning and end to every strategic planning session, right? "Have you done a SWOT?" "What did the SWOT tell us?"

So if it's such a critical tool to strategic planning, why does it seem to fall short of actually delivering on what we want--insights that will help create a winning strategy?

This seems to be a common problem that clients, students, and colleagues run into when doing a SWOT. Our hope going into the exercise is that it will deliver some amazing insights that we can use. And SWOT can do that when it's used as it's intended--as an organizing framework.

Here's a dirty secret of the world of strategy--SWOT is not actually analysis tool. It's really an organizing framework that can pull information from all different kinds of strategic analyses into one, single matrix. And that's the power of SWOT--it's ability to organize everything into one, beautiful matrix.

So how can SWOT best be used, then? I've come up with three guidelines for using SWOT that should help you use it for its intention--to create a winning strategy!

  1. Do your analyses first. When I talk about strategic planning, I like to use the A-F-I framework to guide the process: Analysis--Formulation--Implementation. Analysis is the first step to any strategic planning, and the more analysis you can do, the better. Broadly speaking, we want to look at things both inside and outside our organization. We can start by looking at things going on outside of our organization/group/company/etc.--for example, consumer trends, the arrival of a new competitor, new legislations, changes in our supply chain, etc. We have great tools in strategy for identifying these outside things--for example, PESTEL, Porter's 5 Forces, Industry Lifecycle Analysis, etc. If you're not familiar or trained in how to use these tools, however, you might just start by making a list of all the things that you have little or not control over but can affect your ability to deliver your product/service/program. Similarly, we also think about things going on inside our organization/group/company/etc. For example, we want to know about the resources and capabilities we have, and if there are one or two things that we really do better than anyone else (i.e., competitive advantages). RBV, VCA, and VRIO analyses are great tools for this, but again, if you're not trained in these tools, start by thinking about what your organization has (i.e., resources) and how it uses what it has (i.e., capabilities).

  2. Look for unicorns and rainbows. Remember how I said to look at things both inside and outside our organization? Part of that means looking for "good" things and "bad" things. Go back through your analyses and see if you have identified a relatively equal number of good things and bad things both inside and outside your organization. If not, you might have a list of unicorns and rainbows that's likely not an accurate depiction of what's really going on. Here's the good news, though--strategies can be built to mitigate or overcome bad things, so the more honesty there is in the analyses, the better the strategic outcome will be!

  3. Save SWOT for last. Yep--that's right. SWOT is the organizing framework for all the analyses. Use my attached {free resource} to help organize the information from your analyses. Once you've organized the information, now you can formulate (see AFI reference above!) your strategy. Start "pairing" strengths or weaknesses with opportunities or threats to come up with potential strategies that your organization can take.

I use SWOT in nearly every strategic planning session I facilitate. Hopefully these three tips help you think about SWOT in a way that's more useful for formulating strategies that work!


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