Why It‘s Time to Ban the SWOT from Your Next Retreat

Does the
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.

My recommendation:
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
opinion survey

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.

For example,
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
much time

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
Current Snapshot

Perhaps the
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

Invariably, 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.

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