As an unabashed advocate for strategic planning, I have participated in any number of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis exercises. While it often led to interesting conversations, over time, I began to wonder about the efficacy and utility of this approach.
After many years of facilitating planning sessions, I have concluded that there is a better approach: Eliminating discussion about weaknesses and threats and instead focusing on Concerns, Opportunities and Strengths (COS). Here’s why.
Some years ago, in my early teens, I received some bad advice. I was told that the key to success was to identify and eliminate my weaknesses. Work on your weaknesses, and you will improve your results and reach your goals. Well, as it turns out, that is not the pathway to success. That is the way to frustration and failure. There is a reason each of us, personally and organizationally, have weaknesses. It’s because we’re not any good at them. We can work deliberately, diligently and over a long period of time to correct, mitigate or eliminate them and the best we are likely to become is average. A far better use of time and energy is to focus on unique strengths and work to improve them. This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals.
When articulating threats, I have seen some equally interesting items noted. Whether these were reasonable or far-fetched, likely or unlikely to manifest themselves, nearly all of them had a common thread. No matter how many “threats” were identified, planning teams had few bona fide ideas about how to effectively address them. It was almost as though simply knowing these “threats” were out there was enough to insulate the organization from their potential impact.
Instead of listing “weaknesses” and “threats”, we simply articulate concerns. This approach may include any number of items; both inside and outside the organization. We then address the potential impact of these concerns, prioritize them, and build a method to address them as a fundamental part of the plan.
Opportunities are identified with one caveat. They should be items that are reasonably within our reach with the resources we have or can quickly acquire. Remember, this is a planning exercise, not a wish list. Once identified and prioritized, they help planners establish goals and objectives for the planning period.
Strengths are the things we do well, that are unique to us and can differentiate us in the marketplace. In articulating your organizations unique strengths, consider this question: If your company went away, within a very short period of time, another company just like yours would be created because someone has to ____________________. If you have a difficult time filling in the blank, it could be that you do not yet have the best idea of what differentiates you from your competitors. This is a critically important part of the planning process. Creating unique value for your customers is how top performers avoid the pricing trap that comes from being a commodity provider. They seek to build upon these strengths creating even greater distance from their competitors and increasing customer loyalty.
Once Concerns, Opportunities and Strengths are identified, we next look at obstacles and assumptions. More on that next time.
For a short list of discussion questions to use with your management team, contact me at email@example.com.