Facilitating a SWOT Exercise

Facilitating a SWOT Exercise

Facilitating a SWOT analysis is dutifully interserted into every strategic planning process as a means of thinking about the competitive position of an organization.  Unfortunately, most SWOT analyses are subjective and biased explorations that have the potential of oversimplifying the strategic direction of an organization or trapping an organization in a defensive posture.

The role of assessing the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT ) in nonprofit strategic planning is often misunderstood and misused. At the most extreme a SWOT analysis is confused with the strategic planning process with an organization believing that a SWOT is the sum total of strategic planning. More common is that a team creates a SWOT matrix, (completing the four quadrants), and they are not sure what to do next or the team gets “stuck” processing results. Often the difficulty of processing a SWOT analysis arises around either a team a)  perseverating over the negative screens of weaknesses and threats or b) putting the SWOT variables in a matrix and then not being sure how to integrate the various “quadrants” of the matrix into a whole. In this post, I want to outline a facilitation process designed to assist teams to work through a SWOT analysis.

Acknowledge but don’t feed the Weaknesses and Threats: In my experience, one risk of a SWOT analysis is that a team that is processing weaknesses and threats can inadvertently pull the conversation down towards pessimism and defensiveness. The resulting strategies from such conversations can focus on “defending the gains” rather than “expanding opportunities.” One way to avoid “planning from deficits” is to rethink the framework. Elsewhere I have written about appreciative inquiry as a facilitation process and I have often used a related framework of Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results (SOAR) as an alternative to a SWOT. A good contrast between SWOT and SOAR can be found here – (external link).

However, if a team is committed to a SWOT analysis, it is critical that there is a shared understanding of the purpose of looking the variables, especially, the Weaknesses and Threats. The assessment of weaknesses is the chance to a team to identify and reflect on internal operations and capacity that are the “rate limiters” in moving forward. The assessment of threats is looking at the external environment that could negatively affect the organization’s success. Often, the threatening forces that can impact an agency but might be beyond the control of the organization. Combined, the purpose of looking at weaknesses and threats is to give an organization a realistic understanding context in which they are operating. However, strategic plans should rarely be developed in relationship to weaknesses and threats.

My bias has been a source of many conversations with clients over the meaning and power of words. In suggesting that weaknesses and threats are not the foundation of strategy, I am not suggesting that an organization deny the reality of either. Weaknesses and threats exist and need to be accommodated in the planning process, however, in the planning process, they equally should not be “fed” by giving them inordinate power.  In the end, all strategy should reflect an understanding of the environment but be focused and be framed in the context of the opportunities ahead.

Collapse the Quadrants: It is my belief that a SWOT analysis is most useful to a team as a broad surveillance tool rather than a planning tool. A completed SWOT matrix allows a team to view the scope of possibilities. As weaknesses and threats are identified a team should then turn them upside-down. Weaknesses and threats are the flip side of opportunities and should be viewed as such. In other words, as a SWOT analysis is completed, the traditional four quadrants of the SWOT matrix should be collapsed into opportunities. If a team is clear on this point, then it will prevent them from getting lost in simply “defending gains” rather than engaging in strategic planning. Again, Strategic planning occurs when a team distills the SWOT data into opportunities. So, for example, the threat of “pending budget cuts” becomes the opportunity of thinking differently about revenue diversification or the opportunity to advocate for policy change around funding. A facilitator working with a team on a SWOT analysis should help the team move towards the opportunity quadrant. Again, the purpose if not to ignore weaknesses and threats but to help a team channel the potential and energy to create aspirational strategies and goals.

Create Scenario Screens: A third way to assist a planning team moves through a SWOT analysis is to help the team create “scenario screens.” In short, a scenario screen acknowledges that the variables identified in a SWOT are not static and often only partially understood in the planning process. To help a team plan for the changing landscape (incompletely captured in a SWOT) a scenario screen creates a way to teams to measure opportunities in the context of the organizational mission and vision. Others have referred to the scenario screen process as an “opportunity matrix” or “strategy screen.”  A simple web search of any of these concepts will yield a number of relevant example of such tools.

A scenario screen is a way to evaluate and prioritize opportunities. Typically a scenario screen lists criteria that need to be met as an opportunity is assessed. For example, some potential criteria might be that the opportunity is a) compatible with the organizational mission, b) meets one or more strategic priority, c) has a reasonable timeframe, d) has acceptable costs and e) there is the capacity to execute. A scenario screen may also “rank” or “weigh” variables (such as low fit, medium fit, or high fit) to create a more multidimensional assessment of the opportunity.

Again, while some conflate a SWOT exercise with strategic planning, it is important to recognize that a SWOT analysis is only one tool or exercise in the strategic planning process. However, when facilitating a SWOT exercise as part of the strategic planning process, it is useful to connect the three steps as a process. This facilitation process includes: 1) the broad study and recognition of the SWOT forces internal and external to the organization, 2) the narrower focusing of the conversation around the “unpacked” implicit and explicit strategies and opportunities that emerge from the SWOT, and 3) the creation of scenario screens that help the team manages the shifting dynamics of the SWOT variables, strategies, and opportunities over time.

I believe that strategic planning in the nonprofit setting does not lend itself to the direct application of corporate for-profit strategic planning models. Nonprofit business models are more complex than defending or advancing market share. A SWOT analysis for nonprofits run the twin dangers of either oversimplifying strategy or narrowing strategy into the four unnaturally parsed quadrants. To create a robust strategic plan, facilitating a nonprofit SWOT analysis needs to move beyond the four quadrants and provide an organization with a strategic understanding of the environment, its opportunities, and more importantly the tools to manage the opportunities of the environment over time. Facilitated well, a SWOT exercise can strengthen a nonprofit strategic planning process.


Photo Credit: Jean-Frederic Fortier

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.