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An article I had published last year is the featured article for the Better Boards magazine this month. It asks what you should do before you even think about doing a SWOT analysis on “Strategy Day”.

Preparing for Strategic Planning

There is a story about the tourist who stopped a local resident to ask directions. “Well, I wouldn’t start from here if I was going there” was the less than useful advice.

Just like the tourist, you have to recognise where you are and get to a good starting point before setting out on your strategic journey.

Most readers will be familiar with SWOT analysis. As a reminder, SWOT is about identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats around your business.

SWOT is designed to represent the current state of the organisation. It should be a useful tool to help identify the gap between the organisational vision and the strategy to achieve it. Strengths and Weaknesses are from within your organisation and either drive your business forward or get in the way of being as successful as you would like. Opportunities and Threats are externalities found in your operating environment.

This article is not about the SWOT itself, but rather how to prepare for one. At the Better Boards Conference in 2023, I discussed “What after SWOT” so this is the prequel: “What Before SWOT”.

In almost thirty years helping organisations with their strategic thinking, I have rarely seen SWOT used well.

Too often a strategic planning day has a SWOT brainstorming session. Participants are asked to shout out their thoughts or write them down on sticky notes and place them on a chart. The result is then proudly displayed as the definitive summary of where the business is at.

What it really shows is a veneer of top-of-mind issues.

Two things result from this approach: 1. The information in the SWOT is not terribly helpful in developing the strategy -so it barely gets used, and 2. Clients ask if they can skip that bit next time around.

To really get the value out of SWOT Analysis one should spend more time on the “Analysis” part of the model.

The process starts long before Planning Day, ideally with individual performance reviews. Ask your staff questions which generate the data you need for the SWOT. Questions might include “What do we do as a business that really helps you do your job?” or “What are the particular strengths you bring to your role?” to discover the strengths within the organisation.

Managers might ask about training to help progress the employee’s career, or how they might like to organise their timetable, workspace, processes etc to discover weaknesses. While it might seem obvious that some staff are particularly aware of externalities (sales/marketing staff are never short of an opinion on this), remember that all employees are likely to have a view on the latest technology, may have heard information from their networks and some might have noticed a cyclic pattern over their long experience. Use this internal expertise.

By the way that is an excellent reason to have a diverse workforce. It is also a great reason to have conversations with your volunteer force even if you might not call them performance reviews.

The business then needs to have processes to collate the data collected. This will depend a bit on the size of your organisation but might involve anything from the GM poring over performance review meeting reports through to summaries prepared by departmental heads.

Another source of data is the various meetings of the organisation. These include Board minutes, Health and Safety Committee minutes, and team meeting minutes.

  • Over the past twelve months what are the issues that don’t seem to go away? Why haven’t they been addressed?
  • Who were recognised for positive contributions to the organisation and why? What does our behaviour tell us about what we value in the organisation. Sometimes the values we express through our actions do not match the values in our words.

If staff have been to conferences or seminars what was the learning they brought back. If there was no feedback this might be a weakness. Conferences and other outside events are an opportunity to understand what is happening outside the organisation.

  • What are others in the sector doing? This might provide us with an opportunity or be a threat.
  • Have we attended enough variety of outside events? Have we a systemic weakness of being focussed only on our own industry or sector?
  • Who has learned about what is happening with regard to legislative reform for example? Do they have the capacity to get this information to the people who need to understand this?

There are other data collected in normal business activities. For example, complaints and compliments. Some organisations are very good at collating these into themes and acting on them immediately. The board will often not see these lower-level complaints as they were resolved between meetings. Who identifies if there is a consistent theme?

Identifying the themes is the secret sauce. After all this data collection and collation, the SWOT really begins.

The size of the organisation will dictate to some extent where the first level questions get asked. Large organisations will have departmental plannings sessions prior to the big event. The smallest volunteer-only organisations will have fewer resources and less time to devote to the process.

Having identified the themes, the question to ask is “why these are themes?” This is the discussion for Planning Day.

The key question is: What is the underlying Strength, Weakness, Opportunity or Threat for each theme?

In a typical SWOT brainstorm this might be reported as “High Staff Turnover”. That would be misleading because the weakness is not the staff turnover. That is a symptom. By doing the data collection and collation prior to the Planning Day this symptom can be identified as a Weakness in staff not accessing career progression. Or it may be a Threat from competition in the job market. Or it may be a Strength in developing entry level participants in the sector before they leave for another organisation which of course could be an Opportunity for developing a relationship with another provider.

Discussing the themes, teasing out whether the data is telling us whether we have a strength or a weakness, and agreeing a hierarchy are some of the valuable exercises on Planning Day.

Throughout this article I have emphasised the importance of asking questions. In management speak you “Interrogate the data”. Asking good questions is a good rule in life. Keep asking questions on Planning Day. If necessary, have someone designated to be Devil’s Advocate if your organisation’s style trends to Groupthink. A good facilitator will assist you.

After collecting the data, collating it, and analysing it you are now able to create a SWOT chart that will add real value to your planning. Your SWOT document will be more thoughtful and show up items which should be questioned and discussed. This in turn will lead to a more robust strategic plan.

In Summary

  1. Collect data over the year from meeting minutes, staff performance reviews as well as the usual financial and output signals. Be purposeful in how you record minutes and performance review questions to assist in this process.
  2. Collate the data and find the themes.
  3. Tease out whether the themes indicate a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity or Threat.
  4. Create your SWOT Chart
  5. NOW start to develop a strategy.

This article was originally published in the Better Boards Conference Magazine 2023