Regardless of what field or industry one works in, one must be able to plan a work project. As much as digital technology and the online environment has changed virtually every industry, the skills, tools, and techniques for project planning remain relevant. To remain competitive, businesses must be able to plan out every aspect of a project (or as many as possible) including areas for improvement, potential risks, and areas for growth, to name only a few. This requires team leaders to achieve a clear, thorough understanding of the project requirements, the business environment, and a wealth of other factors, in order to develop the best plan going forward.
This poses the following question: what kind of tool or strategy is considered the “best practice” in project planning? What areas would such a strategy cover? Could it be used in every situation? What are its benefits and drawbacks? How could a team leader make use of it?
Though there is a wide range of techniques available to team leaders, one of the best techniques is known as SWOT. Over the course of this article, the applications, benefits, and potential drawbacks of this technique will be explained. That said, this article is not meant to be the definitive source for information pertaining to SWOT or its use. Team leaders and project teams are encouraged to perform thorough research into whatever strategy or tool they see fit.
It is the intent of this article to give an overview of the SWOT technique, so that project teams and team leaders may judge for themselves. That way, team leaders can determine whether or not the SWOT approach is applicable to their projects.
For those completely unfamiliar with it, SWOT refers to SWOT analysis or the SWOT matrix. Its name is an acronym, referring to Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats; SWOT is a strategic planning technique that identifies these four factors in any project plan. By doing so, the SWOT approach helps team leaders narrow down the objectives of the project. It also identifies what internal and external factors can help or hinder efforts to complete those objectives.
SWOT analysis achieves this by utilizing a question-and-answer methodology in order to collect information. From this, the team can identify what advantages they have to make their project competitive. As one might imagine, Strengths refers to the inherent qualities of the project that would give it an advantage in business. Weaknesses are the exact opposite: these are a project’s characteristics that put it at a disadvantage. Opportunities are outside elements—environmental conditions or situations—that play to a project’s strengths, giving it an advantage.
Threats, on the other hand, are the conditions that capitalize on weaknesses, reducing its effectiveness. Given how important analyses like this are important to the deployment of resources, determining the strong and weak points of a project, as well as situations to optimize both, is a necessity.
Anyone who utilizes SWOT analysis will quickly realize that its assessments are focused on the internal and external factors surrounding a project. The internal factors of a project are those that derive from the organization—the company, the team, or the nature of the project itself. These can include existing infrastructure from other projects, human resources, expertise of team members, and financial assets, to name a few. Those internal factors that give the project an advantage over other similar projects are considered Strengths. Those that place the project at a disadvantage are Weaknesses. It should be noted that these factors need not fit a category permanently. What may be a Strength in one situation could become a Weakness in another case.
Conversely, external factors are those that fall outside the company, project, or team, and lie in the outside environment. These can include the trends in the relevant industry, the needs of clients, competing businesses, and advances in technology. Any environmental factor that the project could exploit would be an Opportunity, while a Threat would be a factor that could pose a difficulty for the project. By making use of SWOT analysis, team leaders can get a better sense of everything they have to work with.
As one can imagine, SWOT analysis has many uses and can fit into virtually any situation. One of its immediate uses can be to evaluate or explore unique solutions to existing problems. SWOT can also be used to identify obstacles to a project, and how to best overcome them. When the next course of action is uncertain, a SWOT analysis can provide a framework for making that decision. If progress on a project has become stagnant, assessing the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats can open team members’ eyes to new possibilities, and to what is holding them back.
When the time comes to implement a project in a new environment, the existing plan may not be completely effective. In cases like these, a SWOT analysis can direct any changes to the project plan, adapting it to the situation. SWOT’s use in brainstorming ideas is plain to see; what is brainstorming, if not examining all aspects of a project plan? This also makes SWOT an effective tool for recording and communicating information about a project.
Finally, when presenting a project plan to company leaders, shareholders, or key officials, having the output of a SWOT matrix in the presentation adds needed credibility to the plan. SWOT analysis is a remarkably adaptable technique, which is why its applications are so widespread.
When thinking of direct applications for SWOT analysis, one might be forgiven for first thinking of big business interests or corporate projects. This is far from the only organization that can make use of SWOT, however. SWOT analysis has also been used by non-profit groups, governmental departments, and even single individuals. Crisis managers have also used SWOT extensively, both in planning out a crisis response and in adapting that response in the middle of an active emergency.
Another group who often makes use of SWOT analysis is any committee that organizes events in a community. The same processes that identify positive and negative aspects of projects can be used just as easily to spot strengths and weaknesses within society. This allows the committee to better promote or inhibit the incorporation of services or changes that may or may not benefit the community. In short, SWOT analysis can be applied to any situation that requires a decision-making process and has a defined final objective or end-state. It should be noted, however, that SWOT is only part of a planning process; it cannot devise a plan alone.
It takes additional techniques, or even a different team, to take the list of factors SWOT generates and devise specific recommendations. Below are a handful of more specific applications for SWOT analysis.
Any effort to devise an overall strategy, corporate, scientific, social-minded, or personal, can benefit from SWOT analysis. Since strategic analysis typically includes identifying internal and external factors that affect a plan, SWOT practically has a place reserved for it. Including the well-known 2x2 matrix can give a more concrete view of these factors, while allowing team leaders or presenters to highlight the interplay between them. This, in turn, can help team members see what assets, limitations, opportunities, and problems they may face.
Highlighting these factors clearly can then set the tone for the kind of strategy that a team, company, group or individual can adopt. If, for instance, there is a strong link between Strengths and Opportunities—if the external environment aligns strongly with the positive internal factors—then the strategy can assume a greater risk with little hesitation. In other words, the strategy should encourage aggressive pursuit of any and all opportunities for growth, profit, or benefit.
On the other hand, if the negative external and internal factors are the ones aligned—if Weaknesses and Threats are strongly linked—then the team must assume that there is a higher level of risk for even small opportunities. Cases like this demand a strategy that is more risk-averse. In order to develop a sound strategy, team leaders must remain aware of their internal and external considerations, which SWOT assists with splendidly.
SWOT’s use in business can easily extend beyond the strategic level; when a business’ competitive edge is not clearly defined, SWOT can shed light on its assets. This can be done through two separate processes—Matching and Converting—that naturally integrate with SWOT analysis.
Matching is theoretically simple: after identifying Strengths and Opportunities, one need only link each Strength with the Opportunity that lets a team best exploit it. For instance, if a company has an excellent knowledge-base in the field of cybersecurity, then it should be linked to any chance to make use of that pool of expertise. Perhaps a client needs a team to harden his or her website against intrusions, or perhaps the team’s expertise could be bundled and monetized as training courses.
Converting is also fairly straightforward: once a team knows its Weaknesses and Threats, it can brainstorm conditions where they might be considered Strengths or Opportunities. This is simple in theory, but it can be a bit more difficult in practice, though it is far from impossible. If an identified Threat is the fact that a business’ existing product line does not meet clients’ needs, and there is no way to redesign it, an Opportunity would be to research markets that would need the product as-is.
Ideally, a team leader would want to convert every Weakness and Risk, but in reality, this is not always possible. In those cases, the best course of action is to avoid Weaknesses and Risks that cannot be converted.
For large-scale corporations, strategic planning is only one part of the overall planning process. Corporate planning is an extensive process that defines every part of the plan to achieve corporate objectives, and many parts of this procedure can make use of SWOT analysis. For starters, simply defining the overall objectives can easily arise from the output of a SWOT matrix. SWOT is also ideal for appraising the entire corporation: present conditions, existing products and services, and the expected life-cycle of those offerings.
If any strategies have been developed, a SWOT analysis can re-examine and revise them, and identify any overall issues of concern. SWOT analysis can lay out critical factors for success—factors which must be considered in order to implement the strategy and achieve key objectives. To implement the strategy, teams may need to devise plans for overall operations, resource allocation, and individual projects, all of which can benefit from SWOT.
Finally, SWOT analysis is useful in tracking results throughout the entire process. The findings from a results-minded SWOT matrix can be assessed next to existing plans, objectives and strategies. This way, teams can spot any deviation and take corrective measures.
In the field of marketing, SWOT analysis is equally effective in devising marketing plans. Since marketers operate by devising thorough profiles of all their major competitors, SWOT’s value is easily apparent. Rather than focusing on their own products or services, marketers assess their competitors via the SWOT matrix and incorporate the findings into their profiles. SWOT analysis helps marketers assess competitors’ cost breakdowns, revenue sources, resources, levels of expertise, overall reputation, and product lines in relation to their own.
SWOT can assist in multiple levels of marketing, including qualitative focus groups and quantitative studies, such as randomized trials or statistical measures. Experimental techniques like test markets can also benefit from a SWOT matrix. A SWOT analysis can further inform observational techniques, and thus help refine these methods.
Leaders of marketing teams that oversee the analysis of environmental factors and competitive intelligence would similarly find a SWOT matrix useful. SWOT analysis’ versatility can make it just as effective in assessing the competition as it is in assessing a company’s own project team.
As has been previously mentioned, SWOT analysis can be readily adapted for use in community work, or for groups trying to affect social change. Since municipalities can spend excessive time weighing the risks and benefits of any change, SWOT analysis can both help determine the success of a project and provide direction to the next step. In community work, however, a few additional factors must be considered before using SWOT. First, the team involved must have a thorough understanding of the target community. This can be achieved through interviews, forums, and listening campaigns—anything that involves interacting with the community public.
Next, the SWOT analysis should be performed during a community meeting or a similar setting. This may include explaining the SWOT procedure to the community and performing a demo SWOT if need be. In any case, maximum participation should be encouraged as the group reviews the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats together. This allows the community to collectively review all the negative factors involved and see how the Strengths and Opportunities can address them.
At the same time, the SWOT analysis provides an opportunity for the entire community to brainstorm new solutions and courses of action for any existing problems.
Many of the benefits of SWOT analysis have been alluded to already, but they do merit repetition. First, use of a SWOT matrix allows a team to determine how viable a project is. Next, it allows team members to envision the outcomes and actions needed to achieve the goal. Furthermore, SWOT analysis is helpful in collecting and interpreting useful information to optimize their efforts. Finally, SWOT is useful for determining which factors are key to achieving the organization’s overall goal.
Despite its usefulness, SWOT analysis is not perfect; there are a few caveats to consider when using it. SWOT analysis can potentially be misused, in that a matrix can be constructed without any detailed or intelligent forethought. This can lead to a misinformed or skewed presentation of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats; in fact, it may present these when they do not exist. This can misinform any process it is used in. SWOT can also be misused in that it can be utilized to defend pre-established strategies or objectives.
Depending on the circumstances, this can create a conflict of interest, if the analysts place the business’ goals over a community or client’s needs. Additionally, a SWOT matrix only creates a list of beneficial and negative factors; it cannot devise strategy or objectives alone. To be effective, that information must be taken and acted upon, and there are instances where SWOT indices were ignored outright. Put simply, a SWOT analysis is only as good as the decision it informs.
As mentioned previously, this article is meant only as a brief treatise on SWOT analysis and its applications. Team leaders interested in making use of it are encouraged to research it further. The intent of the preceding words was simply to provide insight and direction to team leaders going forward.
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