How to Use a SWOT Analysis

Are you are familiar with the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis SWOTtool? Maybe you were exposed to a SWOT in a business class or perhaps you’ve taken part in a strategic planning session. You may have even taken one of our Professional Development classes. We use the SWOT tool in both our Strategic Planning and Critical Thinking courses, and discuss the Four Quadrants technique in our Project Management series.

If you’re not familiar with a SWOT analysis – have no fear. It’s an easy tool to learn!

Essentially, a SWOT analysis is just a collection and documentation of qualitative data – that is, informal or subjective data, grouped as Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. The Strengths and Weaknesses are internal to the organization or project, while the Opportunities and Threats are usually external to the organization or project.

A SWOT is a powerful planning tool. Its simplicity allows almost anyone to use it and glean information from it. That being said, the challenge lies in WHAT to do with a SWOT analysis. Specifically – how to take the output of the SWOT analysis and formulate an action plan.

Here’s a 6 step process that I’ve found to be effective when using a SWOT analysis:

1)  First, define the reason for the SWOT analysis. Do you need a strategic plan? Are you launching a new product or project? Will you be using the SWOT as an ice-breaker, brainstorming or team-building exercise? A SWOT analysis can be used for all of these reasons – and more – but it’s crucial to define the reason for the SWOT prior to using the tool in order to best focus the effort.

2)  Collect your data. This means – do the SWOT. Flesh it out, discuss, debate, argue – do what you need to do to get your data on paper – taking care to involve all stakeholders. It is vital to get as much input as possible from everyone that matters to the organization or product.

3)  Turn each Weakness, Opportunity and Threat “finding” into an actionable item. Consider how your identified Strengths could then address those items.

4)  Prioritize these actionable items. Separate them from their SWOT quadrants at this point and make one list. You want to prioritize your action items in a way that makes the most sense to you and your organization. It could be by relevance to overall mission or purpose, cost, effort – the choice, and criteria, is yours.

For example – your Priority List may consist of reacting to a threat first, then improving a weakness, then building upon a strength, then reacting to a secondary threat. Or it may consist of taking advantage of three opportunities. There’s no right or wrong way to use this data for planning – the key is to identify the specific goals that formed organically from the SWOT.

5)  Make your goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely). This may involve changing the goal slightly, or even removing it from the Priority List. Keep in mind that is the goal isn’t SMART, it is much less likely to be reached.

6)  I then suggest picking as few areas as possible – no more than three – and begin to formulate action plans for how to use your strengths to address the areas of priority.

You may want to consider a Project Management approach and use a work breakdown structure or tree diagram to identify all the actions necessary to achieve success. Or perhaps simple to-do lists and responsibility (RACI) matrix might suffice.

Once the action plan is developed, you are ready to go. Remember, the nature of planning is iterative – that means there is strength and value in repeating and refining the planning process.

Good luck – and remember to keep the results of your SWOT analysis for future planning sessions.