Tough Love for SWOTs

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to pay our final tribute of respect to that which was known as the SWOT Analysis…

What’s that you say? It’s still alive? Oh, I know. This is my attempt to throw it on the cart. Or at least a Hail Mary attempt at making it useful.

What is a SWOT?

In case you’ve been able to avoid every strategic planning session ever (in which case, you should be teaching your own class), you’ve been involved in a SWOT.

A SWOT attempts to provide a structured framework for analysis of a business, organisation, program, product, or person, with a specific objective in mind. It looks at internal factors (Strengths and Weaknesses) alongside external factors (Opportunities and Threats) to help evaluate whether or not the objective is attainable or not.

In other words, it’s a chart of pros and cons that is supposed to be used to help drive forward momentum (or pick another direction.)

I’m sure the former description sounds familiar. But have you ever REALLY used it to help make important decisions? Has a SWOT ever really provided more clarity?

In my experience, SWOTs are arduous, tedious, next to always useless and almost always painful. Here’s why.

Blurred Lines

I always laugh when I’m in a room and the flip chart paper comes out. The scribbling begins. All the arrows. Underlining! Starring! RED MARKER!!!

You start with strengths and move to weaknesses. Hm. Is that a strength or a weakness? Moving on, opportunities. Well, no, that is more internal than external. Actually, it’s both. Well, but that could be seen as a threat. It’s a threat if XYZ, it’s a strength if ZYX.

Rarely are these kinds of things as simple as their four plots suggest. The factors, both internal and external, we face as organisations are complex.

The exercise of distilling it in this way is often an exercise in frustration. Listing, arguing over and commiserating about this kind of thing is, in my experience, never consensus building or helpful.  Categorizing is a distracting exercise, best saved for cans in your pantry.

Objective vs Subjective

“We have a hard working board, that’s a strength” says the executive director, surrounded by board members.

Who is going to put up their hand and say “um, actually, the board doesn’t get fundraising, they’ve been stone-walling progress on our Major Gifts program, they refuse to contribute anything beyond showing up to board meetings, and they didn’t even show up to our major fundraising event!” even if everyone in the room is thinking it?

“Our e-newsletter has over 200 subscribers!” says the communications coordinator, not mentioning that this number has been stagnant for two years, and that analytics show that of the 217 delivered, only 52 are opened, and only a handful of readers are actually clicking through.

“We aren’t doing enough with social media,” says a board member, and everyone looks sideways at the poor administrative assistant who has been charged with updating Facebook.

I could go on listing these kinds of examples LITERALLY FOREVER but the point is this: your SWOT isn’t doing anything to help you see the forest for the trees. I’ve all too often witnessed this exercise produce very subjective and defensive responses when those working for the organisation are involved. And, if the analysis is done by an external party and then brought to the team, it’s often met with the same kind of reaction as a bunch of catty intoxicated fashion writers being told they have terrible shoes.

We need to consider how we talk about the positives and negatives facing our organisations without handing out gold stars and wrist slaps. Items listed in a SWOT are often too broad to be honest or too specific to not cause defenses to go up.

Clear As Mud

“I see!” said the blind man to his deaf wife – my dad used to say this all the time when my mom would try to explain something that he just didn’t get.

So at the end of it all, you clean up the chart, type it up, and hand it out. Akin to speaking in Anglo-Saxon to get my kids to do the dishes, the SWOT (alone or as one of the pages in a multi-page report) does little to provide clear directive.

You’ve effectively stolen a Saturday from your staff for a bucket of mud.

This isn’t always the case, I’m sure. I hope that professional SWOTters step forward and chastise me for shitting all over their beloved process. But I can honestly say that in the decade I’ve had experience with this tool, both as a practitioner and as a lowly staff member forced to participate, I’ve never found them useful, enlightening, or game changing.

If the exercise is to be useful, the product needs to be usable.

Bridges & Barriers

This is something I picked up from Tony Elischer and Jon Duschinsky at a session a few years ago. It is not an entirely new idea, but certainly addresses what is seemingly missing from the traditional SWOT:


Bridges are your positives – it’s about asking what are some great things you’ve done or started, why are they important, and what are you going to do to maintain them?

Barriers are the negatives – what stands in your way of doing what you want to do, and let’s decide here and now: are we going to walk around them (and how) or not (and how do we change course)?

I don’t think this is some new be all/end all tool. I simply think it’s a step in the right direction to asking the important and useful questions necessary to move forward.

I think it’s time we stop approaching strategy like a series of hoops and start really paying attention to our own unique organisations and what is necessary to keep them healthy.


SPANK: Seriously. Please. ACK. No. KARATE!

This 50 year old tool isn’t the worst. But like a lot of things over the last 50 years, like feminism, affirmative action, computer technology, and maxi pad technology, some things eventually need a freakin’ update.

All things considered, use strategic tools wisely.

And if you’re going to pay money to have someone SWOT you, make sure she’s in fishnets and leather. It’s probably going to be a lot less painful.