Achieve Strategic Thinking With S.W.O.T.

There are a number of techniques to stimulate strategic thinking. One of the most balanced approaches is the SWOT approach. The letters S.W.O.T. stand for:

S = Strengths                   W = Weaknesses
O = Opportunities            T = Threats

The reason the SWOT technique works so well is that it requires you to think about the four categories equally. You are forced to look at both the good (Strengths and Opportunities) and the bad (Weaknesses and Threats). The optimistic people can’t escape looking at the downside, while the pessimists must look for something positive. The main idea in this process is to stimulate thoughts and discussions by contrasting Strengths vs. Weaknesses as well as Opportunities vs. Threats. Then you can challenge the Strengths and Opportunities with Threats and Weaknesses. The process has you look at the situation from all sides and juxtapositions.

It is easiest to create a four quadrant grid and label the top left Strengths and the top right quadrant Weaknesses. For the bottom two quadrants, place Opportunities in the left on and Threats in the right. Leave space below each for people to write comments. You can also set up four separate flip chart pages, each labeled with one of the SWOT words. Once you have the “worksheets” set up, begin gathering information by asking four questions. Ask them one at a time, leaving discussion time before moving to the next one. Here are the questions to ask:

1.  What are the Strengths:

  • What is working?      SWOT image-blue
  • What is good?
  • What should you keep doing?

2.  What are the Weaknesses:

  • What is not working as well as it should?
  • What is bad or unacceptable?
  • What should you stop doing?

3.  What Opportunities do you see?

  • What new ideas, approaches, practices, etc.?
  • How can you adapt what you learn here to create something new?
  • How can you better use resources?

4.  What Threats do you see?

  • What challenges do you anticipate?
  • What is the probability of it happening?
  • How serious could it be if it does happen?

There is no set or logical order to the questions and people will want to jump around as thoughts come to them. Your challenge is to channel the energy to collect the comments in the appropriate quadrant. It is easier to facilitate if you explain this to them before you begin the process. You can decide if you want the free flowing approach or a more structured approach. You can also determine whether you want the group to work individually first and then share, or take another approach. The key is to get the information so you can draw conclusions and plan for the future.

Once you have gathered the thoughts and recorded them in the quadrants, look at them from another perspective: Use the Strengths and Weaknesses as an extension of Opportunities and Threats.

  1. What Strengths do you currently have that support the Opportunities?
  2. What Strengths do you currently have that will help you overcome the Threats?
  3. What Weaknesses do you currently have that will have to be overcome to take advantage of Opportunities?
  4. What Weaknesses do you currently have that will have to be overcome to manage the Threats?

While you will not come up with ready-made strategies, using the SWOT process will provide a framework for deeper exploration of how you can take advantage of Opportunities and prevent or reduce Threats. It is also a good technique for engaging others and building on ideas. SWOT’s can be used by individuals, teams or any group that wants to strategize. It provides a good framework and establishes a disciplined approach where ideas – rather than individuals – can be challenged.

Sherry G. Day, M.S., President & Chief Learning Officer of Executive Resources-Human Potential Consultants, L.C. based in Michigan, has worked with thousands of individuals to assist them in discovering the potential within oneself. Transforming individuals and organizations to maximize potential and execute intentions, Sherry works in one-on-one, team and classroom environments to help individuals to maximize their potential and develop their innate interpersonal skills to communicate and lead more effectively. © 2009

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