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The weaknesses and threats of SWOT analysis

Used in the typical way, SWOT analysis can do more harm than good. Why? Because the tool too easily forces thinking that ignores the future.

Using the four SWOT categories; strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats is a recipe, if you don’t take care, for a firm focus on the present. It gives you an organizational assessment, at best.

Typically, a group sits down with flip charts or white boards and inventories the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

And typically, the group has the immediate concerns of the organization foremost in its mind.

  • The strengths are those that have, for the past while, made or kept the organization strong, or should have.
  • The weaknesses are those things that are keeping the organization from prevailing or growing as it would like to in the past and today.
  • The opportunities are things about the current marketplace that suggest there could be more growth and other successes, if only the organization took advantage of them.
  • The threats are things that are freaking people in the organization out right now: who, or what is going to get them, to eat their lunch.
That present day focus is limiting, it fails to account enough for a changing world.

What to do about this

Modify SWOTs to be sure it pushes the view into your future, at least ten years out. Define the elements like this:

Strengths — What attributes of the organization will help us face the changes shaping our business over the next ten years?

Weaknesses — What are gaps and insufficiencies in our skills, organization, financial position, technology, etc. that could dampen our success over the next ten years?

Opportunities — What new areas of growth, development, alliance, expansion, etc. could we take advantage of in the coming decade and beyond?

Threats — What and who could challenge us over the next decade, putting our business, our current market share, etc. at risk?

Reworking SWOT analysis this way will make it a powerful tool for exploring your future, and get you beyond presentist thinking.

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{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Joshua Davis August 2, 2012, 3:15 pm

    Great thoughts, John. My foundation got bent on doing a SWOT a couple of years back. Not only did it not give them actionable benefit, it also innoculated them for a long while to similar evaluation tools. I brought in some foresight tools to hopefully add value and the reaction was severe–more than reluctance, I was met with hard opposition.

    Speaking of Future SWOT, one simple way we’ve retooled the SWOT to look at the future is to use interview questions built like this: “Imagine you are ten years hence looking back, what might have been a huge error or missed opportunity in your sector/business?” (unearths opportunities or threats.)

    Simple, I know, but it worked… Though I like your framework better 🙂

    Thanks again!

  • Jermaine May 2, 2013, 3:52 pm

    Hi John. Firstly thank you for the great write. This has been very informative to me and has assisted my in the writing of my business plan.

I'd love to hear your thoughts