It is important for all organizations to periodically step back, assess what they are doing, determine what is working and what is not, and identify the external forces that are bearing down on them. However, many organizations have experience with strategic planning efforts that are often long, time consuming and complex. The trick is to assess your organization effectively and efficiently so that strategies can be developed, decisions implemented and course corrections made.
One quick, straightforward approach for doing this is an exercise to identify the organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats–in short, a SWOT analysis. In this method participants will identify, record and organize their ideas regarding these four areas in your organization. Once participants have recorded and posted their ideas in each area, they will further organize them into themes. Participants can then rank the themes in terms of importance or the urgency in which they should be addressed. A SWOT analysis generates a lot of ideas very quickly and organizes them in a way that allows for more in-depth analysis and strategy development.
This process is intended to provide information that will be used to develop strategies for moving the organization forward. These strategies should be directed at building on strengths, taking advantage of opportunities, minimizing weaknesses and deflecting threats.
We recently conducted a SWOT analysis with our board at the Bell Policy Center. It took about an hour and a half and generated a number of ideas that formed the basis for further discussion and in-depth analysis.
This method is sometimes referred to as the “snow card” technique for the way in which index cards are arranged on a wall. It is based on the work of Dr. John Bryson, professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and author of Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations. Ideally, it is best done with about 10 people, but it can be structured to accommodate upwards of 50.
When approaching this task, it is helpful to think of strengths and weaknesses as being current conditions that are internal to the organization. Threats and opportunities are future conditions that are external to the organization. Obviously, strengths and opportunities are positive while weaknesses and threats are negative.
SWOT Steps – how
Below is a list of steps in the “snow card” technique to complete a SWOT analysis
- To get started, you will need 3×5 index cards or half-sheets of paper for each participant to record ideas. You will also need some tape and a room with a fairly large, open wall where the cards can be posted. I have found it is helpful to use felt-tip pens or Sharpies so the writing on the cards can be read easily by the group.
- Once you have gathered and distributed the supplies, begin by asking participant to silently identify and write down as many ideas in the designated areas as they can. For example, have them list as many of the organization’s strengths as they can, then ask them to write down weaknesses. This step is designed to give introverts the opportunity to think through the issue and develop their ideas while not constraining the extroverts in the group.
- After they have finished identifying strengths and weaknesses, have them narrow their lists to their five best ideas in each category and write them on the index cards. They should record one idea per card. Each participant will end up with five cards with strengths and five with weaknesses. It is helpful if they write legibly and large enough so the group can see them when they are posted on the wall.
- Have each participant place a rolled piece of tape on the back of each card and post it on the wall. Put all the strengths on the wall in an area under the heading “Strengths” and all the weaknesses in a separate area marked “Weaknesses.” This step provides some anonymity that allows more freedom in identifying and raising contentious issues.
- After all the cards are posted on the wall, have the participants review the cards and organize the ideas into common themes. Once the participants have grouped the cards into themes, have them create a title card with the name of the theme, draw a boarder around the card to indicate it represents a theme, and place it at the top of the group of cards representing that theme.
- Once the participants have done this with strengths and weaknesses, have them do the same thing with opportunities and threats. Have them post these cards on a separate part of the wall under the headings “Opportunities” and “Threats.”
- When they are done there should be cards grouped by major themes under the headings “Strengths,” “Weaknesses,” “Opportunities” and “Threats.”
- To help participants focus their discussion, have them rank the most important or most urgent issues. An easy way to do this is to give each participant five colored stick-on dots and have them place the dots on the cards to “vote” on the most important or urgent issues. They can spread their dots evenly, put all their dots on one card or place them in any combination they want. You can rank the importance by identifying the cards that have the most dots.
- Once the major themes have been identified and ranked, the participants can begin the process of analyzing the results and developing strategies to maximize strengths, minimize weaknesses, take advantage of opportunities and deflect threats.
- At the conclusion of the process, you can record the results by organizing the cards in order by major area (i.e. strengths), theme and ideas within each theme. The ideas contained on the cards can be typed up and distributed to the participants. You can also take a digital photo of the wall with the cards that can be sent to participants.
SWOT Usage – who
I have found this to be an easy-to-use process that helps to structure conversations and identify and rank many issues in a relatively short period of time. It helped our board focus its discussion about the strategic issues facing the Bell.
Because it is easy to use and effective, it is more likely that organizations will make the effort to assess their current operations and identify trends that may affect future operations. Organizational leaders can use this information to craft strategies to move their organizations forward.
This approach can be conducted with board members, senior managers, staff or a combination of people.
Bryson, John (2011). Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement, 4th Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.