It is a treasured feature of strategic planning: the SWOT analysis. The exercise is supposed to enable you to assess your business’ strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to create goals that are attainable and that minimize risk and inefficiency. I’ll concede, it can be useful when used properly but most of the time it is not. I advocate swatting it away altogether.
Problem 1: Your Feelings
To be useful, the items placed in each category of the analysis must be backed up by relevant and accurate data. Far too often, it’s all subjective. Board members or executive leadership will throw in what they “feel” is a strength. For example, a “quality product” or “stellar customer service” are often listed as a strength without any evidence other than pride. Others in the room may even disagree. But having data lends objectivity to the exercise. Let’s say you have customer follow-up surveys showing 80% favorable satisfaction. That is definitely a strength and also an opportunity to improve in a meaningful way. Yet, it’s impossible to quantify the feeling that you have stellar customer service if you can’t point to relevant customer feedback to prove it. In fact, the perception may be completely wrong. This subjective approach is pervasive in many strategic planning sessions.
Problem 2: Lack of Prioritization
At the end of the process, you end up with a list in each category of the SWOT table. Sometimes the lists can be quite long and there’s not much use if you don’t prioritize or give weight to which items are most important. Which of these opportunities has the best chance for moving you toward fulfilling your mission? Just because you have the opportunity to expand into a new program area doesn’t mean you should if it doesn’t directly relate to your mission. The subjectivity inherent in the exercise just compounds the problem.
Problem 3: Now What?
Sometimes the SWOT is the only analytical tool used. Even if it’s not, what eventually emerges is a list of items that read more like inspirations than goals. If you’re lucky enough to have listed SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), there is rarely an actual plan on how to achieve them. Everyone in the session is just relieved that it’s over and it’s then left to the executive director and staff to figure out how to do it. Because the staff wasn’t involved, and the fact that they’re busy with the day-to-day operations, a huge number of plans sit idle without any action at all.
There is a better way
Nonprofits might begin with the question, “What isn’t true today that needs to be true for us to fully fulfill our mission?” It’s not just a question for the board. Involving staff and volunteers on the front lines will often give insight into bigger issues holding you back. From this question, you can develop a list of research needs. For example, if one thing you need to be true is having a new building or office space, then this will require some research into just how big a space is needed, what infrastructure would be needed to fill that space (desks, computers, phone lines, etc.), what financial resources are available for increased rent, and so on. Only after these questions are answered can you set objectives and a strategy to achieve that necessity. Wanting a new space is not a plan. Empowering the executive director to work it out might be a plan, but it’s not a particularly strategic one.
Another example: If what you need to be true today is increased referrals for your program services, then you must first do some research on how you receive referrals today. Where do they come from? If they come primarily via your website, then research is needed to know how they find your website. Was it a Google search, a link on another website, or from your Facebook page? If they come from a handful of referrers in the community (such as a partner organization), then research (and dialogue) with those referrers may be necessary to understand how those referrals work and might be replicated elsewhere. Until you know these answers, you cannot begin to set objectives or begin to strategize on how to increase referrals.
Strategic planning takes insight and that typically takes more than a day-long retreat. Yet, with the right facilitator, using a clear process, and asking the right questions, you can move beyond the SWOT analysis and on to something more concrete that has a much better chance at being operationalized and successful.