Friday, June 22, 2012


The SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats) exercise is a stock feature of strategic planning processes. Over 100 comments in a recent LinkedIn group discussion testify to a wealth of opinion on the subject.

I have often used the technique with nonprofit clients, and have found that a few tweaks can make it much less confusing and more effective.

One challenge in a SWOT exercise is maintaining participant focus on the distinctions among the categories. Depending on how a suggestion is phrased, there can be ambiguity about which category it should go into. Either the facilitator stifles the energy by wielding too much control or one idea suggests another, and the discussion wanders around, losing coherence. Here are two tips for keeping focused:

In structuring the exercise, I start with external factors, outside of the organization’s control, the Opportunities and Threats. These are the easiest to isolate.

Once we go through external factors, I break the internal factors (Strengths and Weaknesses) down into three subcategories:

  • Inputs (eg. human resources, funding, facilities)
  • Processes (e.g. programs, operations, governance)
  • Outputs (e.g. quality and impact of programs and services)
By proceeding through the topics in that order, participants’ thinking is channeled more effectively. Of course, ideas come up outside of the specific category discussions, but much less so than would happen without this structure, and they can be plugged into the right areas along the way.

Another technique can help with SWOT exercises at a large retreat with the board, senior staff and others.

Starting with a blank slate in these settings is overrated. Trustees’ judgment is often best exercised with some prior framing of issues. I have had the staff go through their own SWOT exercise first. I then take the notes from that session and shape them into crisp entries in the appropriate categories. Posting the results of the staff SWOT as a starting point for the retreat saves the board from the frustration of rehashing basic issues from scratch, and allows them to apply their judgment to build on, and perhaps challenge, the preparatory work.

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