Monday, February 15, 2016

Choose Your Objective Before You SWOT

Most people are familiar with the handy strategic tool called the SWOT analysis. SWOT as in Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, two internal and two external assessments that are often helpful to perform in a group context in order to fashion effective strategy.

One thing that's often missed, however, turning this helpful exercise into a colossal waste of time, is the need to pick an objective before conducting your SWOT. With an objective in mind--be that objective the mission of your association or the expected outcome of a program--a SWOT can help you figure out how to tackle it. Leverage strengths, minimize weaknesses, seize opportunities, and avoid threats. But without an objective in mind, the exercise does little more than generate a bunch of words.

Perhaps you've seen it happen? Or perhaps you've even participated in such a fruitless exercise? The facilitator says you're going to list all the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, and the all the opportunities and threats facing it, and you're off the the races--flipchart paper getting filled up and pasted on the walls, words upon words upon words.

Where, someone should ask, is the focus in all of this? Anyone who has done one of these unfocused SWOTs knows that the same items tend to show up as both strengths and as weaknesses, as both opportunities and threats. When you have a growing membership, but they don't participate as much as they should, it's hard to know if your membership is a strength or a weakness. When your members's businesses are increasingly profitable, but they starting to buy each other, it's hard to know if the business climate of your industry is an opportunity or a threat. Decisions are usually made by the loudest voices in the room, or worse, items wind up in more than one place on the matrix.

Many of these troubles go away when you place the SWOT in the context of a specific objective, With an end goal in mind, hopefully written in big, bold letters at the top of every piece of flipchart paper, the conversation gets a lot more focused.

Our objective is to defeat a piece of pending legislation that will be harmful to our industry. What organizational strengths can we bring to bear on that objective? What organizational weaknesses will hamper our effectiveness? What opportunities in the marketplace can we capitalize on? What external threats are likely to work against us?

Answering these kind of questions will be a lot more helpful. They can turn your SWOT from a simple team-building exercise to an essential part of your strategy and execution function.

And, please, as a parting word, if there is anyone out there still calling it a SWAT analysis, just put the association down and walk away.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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