I grew up reading George Steiner on strategic planning. George didn’t write or teach about SWOT, he wrote about WOTS-UP, which I think was a more colloquial and accessible way to state: weaknesses, opportunities, threats and strengths. And he used it long before Budweiser and their famous What’s Up campaign.
Regardless of the phrase we use, this approach to analysis has become standard issue MBA-speak and a strategy just doesn’t seem complete without it. Most strategists, however, only go partway by narrowing their analysis lens to focus only on the “accepted” strategic playing field. They define a “vision” or future-state and then examine the organizational SWOT associated with that state. They may also conduct a more near term version in the competitive space.
Most people fail to acknowledge that the future is uncertain. They conduct SWOT against a single future. That is like picking the most scenic route to a place you’ve never visited by looking at a street map. You may select one path against many as the best, but the detail doesn’t inform you much about the journey. In because of that, the journey may be far from what you expected, and require you to make choices you had not planned for.
By incorporating scenarios, organizations examine multiple, plausible paths into the future. This also gives them the opportunity to explore SWOT against different social, economic, political, technological, and environmental backdrops. What is a strength under one set of circumstances may be a weaknesses against another, and without varied contexts, that difference would never be discovered, let alone explored.
Organizations seeking to understand their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats cannot presume their future context, so they should employ scenarios as a way to help them develop a more robust understanding of their position.
Daniel W. Rasmus
Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.