This month I celebrate the first anniversary of my “Goodbye SWOT” webinar for alumni of the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. The messages bear repeating as I nudge you to form new habits.
Using SWOT Analysis for strategic planning is a bit like binge-watching your favorite series for the umpteenth time. Even Harvard Business Review can’t get enough of it. It seems satisfying at first but leaves you wondering if the easy choice was the best use of your time. SWOT is shorthand for “let’s scan the environment with its bracketing of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, SWOT is shorthand for “let’s scan the environment.” Completing the analysis is more important than the conclusions, as the findings are crafted from ready evidence. The result is a four-quadrant matrix that can be condensed into two columns. Opportunities are synonymous with strengths, and threats sound a lot like strengths, too, come to think of it. Thank goodness we don’t have many weaknesses.
You hope SWOT can account for your competition. But it won’t. You wish SWOT prompted you to think about your company’s context, the trends with power to drive your future. But it doesn’t. You expect SWOT to spark conversations about your competitive advantage. Now, you are asking way too much. SWOT was never designed with that in mind.
What can you count on? First, you can be sure SWOT will distract you with bright, shiny objects. It draws the eye to the issue of the day. (Psst, it has fun doing that.) But rest assured, SWOT will engage you in a bit of navel-gazing. You were seeking solace in a long list of strengths, weren’t you?
Here is an example. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen “We are the best-kept secret” listed as a threat and an opportunity. That framing shifts your thinking from “Our competitors are encroaching on our market” and “Our customers can’t tell us apart” to “We’re great” and “Let’s strengthen our social media.” You’ve just reduced a potential aha moment to a list of tactics. Say goodbye to fresh insights.
Created more than fifty years ago when Encyclopedia Britannica presented the world’s knowledge in a set of printed books, SWOT’s simple framework was attuned to the times. Back then, the shelf life for information was ten years or more. Today, data has the shelf life of a day, month, or year at best. Google is your connection to the world’s ever-expanding body of knowledge.
SWOT’s simplicity underestimates external forces with the potential to alter your customer’s choices. Let me be clear. Your customer will discover unexpected competitors in a day or a week at most. Categorizing external conditions as merely positive or negative misses the game-changer, the new product or service that swooped in from a player in another industry. It happens routinely today.
Here’s what I’ve learned. First, you want to focus on the trends with the potential to influence your customer’s preferences and determine their decisions. After all, that’s what your competitors are after. Second, for example, keep an eye on broad societal trends, such as non-binary gender identification and new family structures. Finally, don’t forget sweeping consumer behaviors like mobile payments as digital wallets influence purchasing behaviors.
What is SWOT’s most significant drawback? It lulls you into thinking that your company has done everything necessary to set its future strategy. Repeated autopilot use has conditioned you to believe that a mere summary suffices for a robust understanding of the ever-changing external environment.
From one strategist to another, I would avoid:
- The risk of being left behind as your competitors adapt to changing customer preferences.
- The risk of undervaluing your customer’s power to determine the rules of engagement.
- The risk of underestimating the threat of new entrants to your market.
- The risk of overestimating your organization’s ability to navigate complex and rapid changes.
SWOT was made for a simpler time; 2021 wasn’t simple, and 2022 won’t be either.