Are your employees taking their training into their own hands? If so, how can you stop the motivated learner from abandoning your good training for a five-minute YouTube video? Attend this session to discover ways to engage your learners in self-training experiences filled with expert content gleaned from your company or industry. Use it to win learners’ deep attention, defeating the appeal of superficial tips and tricks.
This is a live presentation made at the Association for Talent Development Conference 2019 held in Washington DC. The accompanying slides and online game from the session can be accessed here – http://2time-sys.com/atd
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) technique deserve
it‘s accepted place in your next strategic planning retreat? Maybe not. There
are more precise ways to understand the current state of the business that take
less time and use more facts.
If you are leading your organization‘s next planning exercise, lift things up a
notch by omitting the SWOT activity from the agenda. There are three reasons
why this list-making activity needs to be transformed.
1. It’s just an
When people cough
up strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats they are merely offering
opinions. While there are facts sitting in the background somewhere, the truth
is that the exercise is based on opposable points of view, even allowing items
to show up in multiple lists. For example, a reality such as “We have five
employees” could fit into any of the four categories, construing it as either a
“pro” or a “con”.
Given the fact
that anyone can have an opinion about anything, merely accumulating these
arbitrary points of view is a low-quality exercise. Discussing and debating
them at length only reduces your meeting to a talk-shop.
2. It anchors the
team in old thinking
The purpose of a
well-designed retreat is to establish a clean break from the past. By contrast,
the SWOT activity does the very opposite. Why? It merely asks people to
rehash old, familiar lines of thinking. This reinforces the emotional link to
whatever former strategy happened to be in place, which in turn, makes it
harder to create a fresh one.
imagine what happens when the team lists the fact that having five employees is
a weakness. Now, it’s difficult to see it as a strength, which it may be in the
context of a fast-changing industry. Stating the old concept as the
solid truth only stands in the way of realizing a new paradigm.
3. It takes too
As the designer of
the retreat, you are probably painfully aware that time is a scarce commodity.
A SWOT survey gets people talking, but it requires several hours of precious
space to collect the group’s point of view, collate and present it. This
time could be better spent doing deeper dives into hard data.
Given these three
shortcomings (which many executives already quietly realize) why does the
exercise continue to be so popular? As a retreat organizer, you may have the
answer: because it‘s easy.
Not only is a
choice to do the activity never challenged, those who participate are unlikely
to challenge each other during the exercise. Unfortunately, this avoidance
tactic violates research showing that a group must struggle to produce good,
new ideas. Here are some recommendations I make to solve the dilemma of coming
to agreement without taking a shortcut.
1. Do the SWOT
Survey Online, Before the Retreat
My clients do
these surveys before retreats, as part of our data gathering and include all
employees. The most salient results are summarized in the meeting within
15 minutes, which saves time and effort.
2. Facilitate a
original intent of the SWOT was to gain an understanding of the present state
of the business. This picture is still needed, but it must be fact-based.
As I have
explained in a prior column, your snapshot can be pulled together using
different perspectives: financial, customer/competitor, operations and
employees. Add in an analysis of the external environment with the PESTER
views, (Political, Environmental, Sociological, Technological, Economic and
Regulatory), taking special note that technology is emerging as the most
critical outside factor.
At first glance,
this may seem like a dull recitation of boring data. However, the point is to
understand (as a team) the story the facts are telling. Inevitably, this will
include a robust discussion of various strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and
threats but there‘s no need to group them. Instead, let the information do the
talking, rather than hasty opinions, and weave the four SWOT themes into the
tale the data tells is nuanced, filled with ups and downs, polarities,
discrepancies and paradoxes. Only a team of insiders with a deep appreciation
of the organization and their individual specialty can fully pull it together.
Certainly, an outside consultant can’t.
Of course, there
are companies which attempt to skip the snapshot altogether and jump right into
planning the future. Unfortunately, doing so yields pipe dreams with no
foundation in reality. It reduces the trust needed to make a risky move.
In summary, it
takes a concerted effort to have everyone on the team see the company’s current
position from a joined-up point of view. However, it’s more than a
team-building activity: It’s also an evaluation of the status quo which is the
first step to carving out a transformative strategy. Don’t block a big change
which needs to happen with a costly SWOT mistake.
Why does your company appear to
repeat simple mistakes so often? If you are a manager, it’s exhausting to chase
one error after another, doing little more than fighting fires. There may be a
better approach – use the principles of “defect management” borrowed from Total
In the late 1980’s the world came to
recognize Japanese dominance in automotive manufacturing. The country had come
a long way: back in the 1960’s the quality of its cars were
sub-standard with numerous customer complaints. While the techniques they
adopted to transform their situation weren’t new, they were the first to apply
quality improvement and process management in a rigorous, systematic way. The
resulting turnaround appeared miraculous to the rest of the world, resulting in
manufacturers adopting their techniques on a large scale.
One of the innovations they
introduced was a peculiar way to uncover operational problems that only occurr
in small numbers.
If your company has over 100
employees, it has the same challenge: it’s made up of intricate,
cross-organizational processes which are hard to diagnose. In other
words, tricky issues persist because the link between cause and effect
isn’t easy to determine. Take, for example, two of my favorite problems: email
and meetings. Your CEO might decide to order people to spend less time on these
activities, but his command wouldn‘t work. The defects in both of
these areas have multiple causes, which means that these forms of
corporate waste are difficult to eradicate.
Here’s a way for your organization
to use this technique to stop making the same mistakes over and over again.
1. “Defects” – A Re-Definition
In their solution, the Japanese
pioneered a new way of looking at defects. They argued that companies are poor
at distinguishing them due to bureaucracy, company
culture and internal politics. For
example, managers who are trying to look good at all times are likely to disown
It’s not entirely their fault.
Most people who think of defects
imagine visible and tangible errors, such as a car rolling off an assembly line
with its steering wheel missing. However, you are probably a knowledge worker
and the defects in your role are much harder to identify. The chances are high
that they are not being noticed or measured.
For example, a meeting may be
effective overall, but still full of defects. Let’s glance at the last
gathering you called. Compare it against this checklist of possible defects.
– a late start or end
– a tardy attendee
– an agenda which was never
assembled or followed
– each time someone used their
smartphone to check email
– action items which weren‘t
– a lack of written feedback
By this definition, some managers
have never attended a defect-free meeting. In fact, these problems may be the
norm in your company, which is blind to these mistakes. Unfortunately, they add
up and damage employee productivity.
2. Defects in Your Work
Now, let‘s switch to the everyday
work you perform. If you are a manager, what are the defects you could be
unwittingly producing with your direct reports? The way to identify them is to
find the shortfalls; the places where standards aren’t being met.
For example, if a performance review
conversation with your employee doesn‘t go well, consider that to be a defect.
You probably aren‘t measuring the number of times this occurs, but if you were
to do so, you could actually launch increasingly deep improvement efforts.
That would mean resisting the
temptation to bury the defect inside a string of successes. This happens when
you argue: “Yeah, but how about the other times when I don’t make mistakes.
Shouldn’t I get credit for my 99% success-rate?”
In this context, the correct answer
is “No”. There‘s no need to be defensive. Defects are not important because
they make people feel bad. Instead, they are a critical part of your efforts to
uncover the details which aren‘t working. They help you craft precise
interventions which produce superior performance.
If you think that this isn‘t
achievable in small increments, think again. The Japanese industrial miracle
was built on steady tiny gains, accompanied by knowledge accumulated over
time. It gave their companies a solid competitive advantage over others who
were boasting to themselves about their “99% performance.”
It’s ironic: the way to continue
improving is to start by calling out defects. This puts the focus where it belongs
and prevents people from hiding behind the numbers. Fail to do so and it won’t
be long before a comfortable mediocrity sets in which affects productivity at
every level. Committing to removing defects takes great courage, but it’s one
of the keys to competitive advantage.