Where SWOT Analysis Go Wrong


One best practice tool that’s almost always used (or should be used) before making a change in organizations, projects, or even personal life and career is a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. When done correctly a SWOT can give you the insights you’d get from a big brother (or sister) on which road to take, what you are good at, what not to do, and what you need to develop.

Prepare for projects, organization changes, or career moves with a SWOT Analysis.

Prepare for projects, organization changes, or career moves with a SWOT Analysis.

If you’ve done a SWOT analysis before don’t stop reading here. Most SWOTs could be done better. (Perhaps since I’m from California I should be less judgmental and say “They don’t reach their full potential.” You should not do a SWOT the way most are done. And you should definitely not do the average SWOT analysis for your personal life and career.

A Brief Description of a SWOT

If you haven’t done a SWOT before, here’s a very short description. Next week’s newsletter will include much more detail, step-by-step instructions, templates for a SWOT and SWOT Action Plan, and interview questions for work and personal/career SWOT.

If you are already familiar with SWOTs, then feel free to skip to the next section where I dig into some of the ways I’ve seen SWOTs go wrong.
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Any SWOT exercise should ALWAYS BEGIN BY stating the focus of the SWOT. You can’t analyze strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats unless you know the focus of the SWOT. What are the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in relation to?

Begin a SWOT with an objective statement like,

“What will our position be if we introduce the XYZ product into the market?”

“What is the status of onboarding for new hires?”

“How do I look for that job I’m about to apply for?”

“What does my career look like for the next year in this same industry and job?”

When Good SWOTs Go Wrong

There’s at least three problems with most SWOT,

They become a checklist item on the road of planning. They become a rest stop where everyone can have a discussion about business, but then nothing happens.

“Did you do a SWOT?”

“Yep. We’ve got a matrix filled in and we put a check mark on the list of planning items.”

They become a love fest where there’s a long list of strengths and opportunities and much shorter lists of weaknesses and threats.

“Wow! We are way ahead of the competition on this product.”

“I totally agree. One or two minor issues with government regulations and we’ll be ready to launch.”

No actions or responsibilities come out of the SWOT. The SWOT is written on a tablet, but there’s no insights into how to use strengths to take advantage of opportunities, how to avoid threats, how to improve our weaknesses. And no one walks away with action items.

“That was a great discussion. I hope someone digs into those three artificial intelligence issues on the Forbis Project.”

“That was a good-looking matrix. It will look great in the appendix.”

The people who execute the change never see the SWOT or the detail behind it. The relationships between the four quadrants are lost; strengths in one work area aren’t used to win an opportunity in another area, threats from outside the company aren’t considered by an internal team, and so on.

“If we had only seen the detail from the SWOT we would have been able to make the Framus 500 more competitive.” (I’ve seen this happen so often in software development that I now consider it a given.)

“If marketing had coordinated better with legal this product launch wouldn’t be behind schedule.”

SWOT was developed in the 1960s based on a Stanford University study of Fortune 500 companies which found a 35 percent discrepancy between the objective and what was executed. The main cause was that employees did not know the reasoning and foundation behind projects. Other studies by the Standish Group over decades have shown that about 70% of IT projects fail. I would bet that along with lack of stakeholder buy-in a poor SWOT contributed to the failure.

A good SWOT is not a checklist item or a chance to remind everyone about the issues they discuss over lunch. The SWOT should drive action and should have individuals responsible for each action. Everyone who is part of the project should know the SWOT and its foundation.

Additional articles cover,

  • A step-by-step guide to creating a project or personal/career SWOT analysis.
  • A detailed step-by-step on turning your SWOT into a SWOT Action Plan.
  • A SWOT analysis  templates.
  • A SWOT Action Plan template.
  • Sample questions for business SWOT analysis.
  • Sample questions for personal and career SWOT analysis.
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