Jose Palomino

The Actionable SWOT Analysis

January 22, 2013

Strengths. Weaknesses. Opportunities. Threats. Yes, we’ve all sat through a SWOT exercise or two (or three). Much has been written about the SWOT analysis as a business strategy tool since it first appeared in the 1960s.  As of late, the SWOT has fallen into disfavor in certain consulting circles.  Certainly, there’s no business tool that’s right for every business or situation, but I believe the SWOT still has its uses. The point of this post, however, is this: while the SWOT equips you with some critical information (and, we hope, insights), it’s what you do with the information that makes all the difference.

So that’s where I have to ask: if you’ve ever done a SWOT analysis before, what did you do with the information?  In other words, how actionable was it?  How did it help you on a practical, tangible level?

There is still value in using the SWOT analysis, as long as you make it actionable. There’s a clear, consistent way to do it, and I’m going to show you how.

A Little Background First

Since it’s been a little while since SWOT has been widely used, it’s probably worth taking a few minutes to review.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with SWOT, or perhaps who need a little refresher, here goes…

The gist of SWOT is to provide a way for a company to analyze its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats in relation to some important dimension — typically market position.  The idea is to set up a chart, looking something like this:

Image from Creately, where you can download a number of different SWOT templates.

To get you started on questions, the chart above provides a good list, as well as this article over at Inc. Magazine.  Of course, these lists are just a starting-off point; you should dig as deep as possible, taking into consideration the specifics of your particular industry.

Sometimes, a marketing team might also add a column for “relevant competitors,” which I would highly recommend doing if you’re serious about having as much information as possible.  Remember, in order to go-to-market wisely, it’s not just enough to have information about YOUR company, but also about the competition.

The Actionable SWOT

An Actionable SWOT simply adds a row to the end, so you ask a question that begs a concrete response.  Specifically,

  • Strengths: How do you leverage?
  • Weaknesses: How do you mitigate?
  • Opportunities: How do you exploit?
  • Threats: How do you dissolve?

In “chart” form (for all you visual learners out there), it might look something like this:

  Strengths Weaknesses
Identify What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
Take Action How do you leverage? How do you mitigate?
Opportunities Threats
Identify What opportunites are available to you? What trends, conditions, or competitors pose a threat to you?
Take Action How do you exploit? How do you dissolve?

The extra column or question is what makes it actionable — it doesn’t just take the analysis, “What IS?” — it asks the next logical question, “What do you do about it?” I firmly believe that without that question, the SWOT analysis falls flat — and not deliver its full “punch.”

That’s the first step, and then the next step is to prioritize the impact.  In other words, which of these strengths really help you accomplish your goals, which of these weaknesses really hurt you the most, which of these opportunities (fully realized) would have the greatest positive impact, and which of these threats (if they came to pass) would hurt you the most?

And thus you have a tool which helps you analyze very quickly what’s going on, and how to respond in a way that makes sense — whether you’re analyzing an employee, a client relationship, or your company’s place in the market.

  • How have you seen the SWOT analysis work in the past?
  • How have you seen it fall flat?
  • What ways have you utilized the SWOT in a way to make it actionable?

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February 19, 2013 at 8:33am


Anne Pauker Kreitzberg January 24, 2013 at 1:43pm

Hi Jose! Interesting take – and best of luck with the book!

In my experience, SWOT is a useful tool to quickly get folks to consider the ‘pros and cons’ of a single, specific strategy in a way that not only looks ‘inward’ but encourages ‘outward’ looking. I’ve noticed a general tendency to jump on ideas too quickly, or to get caught in the cross-fire of two competing ideas. This really helps to slow down the thought process in a more deliberate, ‘objective’ process.

As you suggest in your post, it can be very useful to help identify potential ‘deal breakers’, specific areas for further investigation, discussion of unanticipated consequences or how to deal with unanticipated outcomes.

Skip Lange February 25, 2013 at 4:25pm

Hi Jose:

I’ve done several hundred SWOT Analyses and have found that this activity is an excellent way to shape the themes, SMART Goals, and priorities for the organization. Typically, I lead the leaders through a process where they can answer the questions you pose above and begin to address these challenges.

I use a process where we articulate the current situation, establish targets to achieve, and then propose the actions that need to be undertaken to achieve the targets. This process provides a robust look at what needs to be accomplished and often is the source of SMART Goals. It also helps to get everyone on the same page and creates a shared understanding of the issues and how they can be addressed.

As General Eisenhower said, “Plans are useless but the planning process is invaluable”. Planning is not about thinking about your future: it is about choosing what you want your future to be and creating actionable methods to achieve it, i.e., execution.

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