When a SWOT becomes a SWAMP (part 1 of 2 … or more)


We are all familiar with the (in)famous SWOT-acronym. It’s a concept pioneered by Albert Humphrey, who was leading a convention at Stanford University in the 1960s & 1970s using data from Fortune 500 companies.

SWOT analysis is a strategic planning method used to evaluate the Strengths, Weaknesses/Limitations, Opportunities, and Threats involved in a project or a business venture.

Even these days, it’s still a standard instrument in many a strategic consultant’s toolkit.

So it somehow remains a mystery to most of us how SWOT-exercises seem to suffer from a productivity trap, similar to the one frequently encountered during or after brainstorming.
As one of the managers, I recently met, put it: ‘We invested a lot of sweat, but our ROI was not a lot of swot.’
So what IS the problem?

For many participants in a SWOT-exercise, the only thing they know about it is the meaning of the acronym itself. But even if they have made themselves somewhat familiar with the technique itself, this may be to no avail, because no analysis of facts whatsoever preceded. As a sorry result, unfunded (however well-intended they may be) opinions – mere opinions only – flourish.

The SWOT-matrix is very often treated as a kind of crossword puzzle where the same terms keeping popping up, so in the end no surprises are to be expected and nothing new is being learned. What’s more, after having drawn up the SWOT-matrix, many teams consider the task to be completed. Nothing could be more besides the point.

But how can one overcome these problems?

  • The first issue must be addressed by vigorously asking ourselves tough, somewhat unconventional questions, such as: Are automatically perceived strengths really strengths? Might we be able to turn some weaknesses in to new opportunities?
    It can also be avoided by letting all participants note their top 5 strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats on a separate piece of paper (or in an online, collaborative application) by themselves. The group discussion (vying for consensus) can only follow after everyone has submitted his/her items first.
  • The second issue is about correctly assessing the objective of a SWOT-exercise: the SWOT-analysis is not meant to function as a static summary of the current situation. Because of the relationships between the components (e.g. strengths to profit from opportunities or to counter external threats or mend internal weaknesses), dynamics are inherent to the SWOT-analysis.

Some of the teams consistently (over a series of annual strategic seminars) keep listing their management team itself as one of the major strengths. I am in no position to question the validity of this point of view, yet the fact that a team itself positions this strength first in the SWOT-matrix does not instill me with much confidence in the outcome of the exercise.

Questioning if a supposed strength really is a strength indeed is also an activity often overlooked or feared. The first (overlooked) occurs when everything is self-evident to a homogeneous group of managers or team members. The latter (feared) occurs when no one wants to question the status quo or challenge the current view or strategy.

  • An external facilitator might help out by questioning the answers in a challenging, though not disrespectful, manner. But only when supported by the CEO and a majority of the management team can this facilitator succeed.

SOME PARTS SEEM EASY (but are not)
Most of the management teams I worked with myself in the past or heard about from colleagues seemed interested in the S-part only, and kept a clear distance from the W- and T-parts. For the O-part, there seemed to be a lack of inspiration. This always led to a heavily skewed SWOT, where the inherent bias did not only elicit the wrong answers, but also led to wrong, strategic questions.

  • But should we be surprised by all of this? Of course not. After all, if the company or organisation you are working for meant nothing at all to you, so the only thing you would be doing was to criticize, then what on earth would you still doing there? And if your company or organisation really had so many weaknesses and almost no strengths, then why would it still exist? And if opportunities were so easy to spot (or exploit), then wouldn’t a multitude of competitors try to outperform you and your team?
  • So …
Deciding on what to do with your strengths is the first choice you have to make, because there are two combinations possible: will you pitch your Strength against a Threat? Or do you prefer to mobilize your Strength in pursuit of a new Opportunity (or should we say ‘Blue Ocean’)?
Less obvious to most organisations and management teams alike, are the combinations which involve Weaknesses: ‘How on earth could a Weakness be effectively used for countering a Threat or for maximizing return on an Opportunity? But it is possible! Just think of a number of ‘Samson & Goliath’ analogies in the real world of international trade: think of Hong Kong, of Singapore, and why not, think of Flanders? ‘Profiting from Modesty – How small Flemish companies from Belgium can enjoy a big global advantage’ is a 2010 study from Flanders DC, a Flemish organization for entrepreneurial creativity, that perfectly illustrates this.
Least obvious of all, and often overlooked, is internally evaluating Strengths versus Threats: Which are bigger, Strengths or Threats? Which are most relevant under current conditions? Which of them will last over time – ceteris paribus – the rest remaining unchanged?
Yet sometimes, when it goes wrong, it really goes wrong indeed and your glorious SWOT eventually turns into a SWAMP, characterized by:
  • Self-promotion
  • Wangling
  • Abandonment
  • Mediocrity
  • Preservation
In part 2 of ‘When you’re SWOT becomes a SWAMP’, I’d like to discuss how to overcome this.