Include a SWOT With Your New Year Business Planning

swot-strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threatsAs the year winds down and we each get geared up for the opportunities in 2012, now’s the time to update that business plan — assuming you haven’t done so yet.  Even if you don’t have your own business, it’s still immensely helpful to take a milestone assessment of your department, company, team, or what have you, as you plan budgets and resources for the coming year.  This is when a SWOT analysis can help.

What’s a SWOT?

A SWOT analysis is a structured group activity that’s useful for identifying the internal and external forces that drive your competitive position in your market.  In the case of a department, committee, team, group, and so on, a SWOT can be used to assess your group’s positioning within the larger organization.

Procedure:

  1. Define “SWOT” for your meeting participants.
  2. Analyze the internal environment.
  3. Analyze the external environment.
  4. Clarify ideas.
  5. Narrow the list.

Step 1.  Define what “SWOT” means for your meeting participants.

SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

  • Strengths identify any existing or potential resource or capability within the organization that provides a competitive advantage in the market.  For example, an organization might define its capabilities as having a strong distribution network, intense employee commitment and loyalty, increasing profit margins, and so on.
  • Weaknesses point to any existing or potential internal force which could serve as a barrier to maintaining or achieving a competitive advantage in the market.  For example:  lack of clear company strategy, lack of training opportunities for using new technologies, inability to rapidly indoctrinate new employees, and so on.
  • Opportunities are existing or potential forces in the external environment that, if properly exploited, could provide a competitive advantage.  For example: high customer satisfaction ratings, raving fans, proprietary technologies, and so on.
  • Threats, meanwhile, have to do with any existing or potential force in the external environment that could inhibit the maintenance or attainment of a competitive advantage.  Here, examples might include:  a new competitor, a recession, rising (or even lowering) interest rates, tight credit lines, etc.

The thing to notice from the definitions above is that Strengths and Weaknesses are inward looking.  You generate ideas and gather feedback within the context of your organization or company.

Meanwhile, Opportunities and Threats are outward looking.  That is, what’s happening in the environment that will (or can) affect your organization or company.

Step 2.  Analyze the internal environment: Strengths and Weaknesses

In this step, ask your participants to identify the strengths of the organization (or department, etc.).  Questions you might consider asking include:

  • What strengths are unique to our (company, organization, department…)?
  • What differentiates us from the competition?
  • What is it that we do really well?

Next, ask participants to identify the weaknesses.  Questions to consider include:

  • What knowledge do we lack?
  • What skills do we lack?
  • What systems do we need to change?

Consider also discussing any case studies, white papers, lessons learned, client projects that went particularly well, as well as those that didn’t go particularly well.

Step 3.  Analyze the external environment: Opportunities and Threats

Reminding participants of the definition you gave in Step 1, ask them now to help you list opportunities.  Questions to consider include:

  • What additional services can we offer existing clients?
  • How can we engage our highly satisfied customers and raving fans to expand our offerings?
  • What new markets are we positioned to enter?
  • What new markets are we positioned to create?
  • Are there any service offerings we have that can be leveraged to appeal to different generations?

Finally, ask participants to do a similar exercise in identifying threats.  Questions to consider here might include:

  • Who are our closest competitors?
  • What new companies are poised to enter our market?
  • What environmental or regulatory issues might affect our industry?

The resulting list might look something like this:

swot analysis

Step 4.  Clarify ideas.

Review each idea within each of the domains; ask clarifying questions while discussing the underlying drivers of each idea.  It will help to ask members who presented an idea to help clarify and explain to the rest of the team what they meant about that idea.  Remember, the goal in this step is to clarify.  Avoid debating or championing the importance of any particular idea.

Step 5.  Narrow the list.  (If needed.)

This step will likely require the use of some kind of facilitative “narrowing” technique to help combine similar ideas.  One such technique could be your own variation to an approach I wrote about previously on using Post-It notes to help gain meeting consensus.

The goal here is to reduce the quantity of ideas listed under each domain without (and this is important) outright discarding any one idea.  It’s important that each participant feel that her/his idea was included.  It’s also unnecessary to discard ideas, given the easy techniques available in the Post-It notes article for combining, voting and narrowing.

By now, you can see that conducting a SWOT analysis with a group can be a bit time-consuming.  Due to this fact, you may want to conduct the SWOT over a span of time (over a span of days, for example).  You might also consider focusing on the internal dimensions with one group, while reserving the external dimensions for another day with another group.

SWOT is also a technique that can help sole proprietors and small business owners conduct business planning for the new year or new quarter.

Is this something you’ve done before?  What other planning tools do you typically use to prepare for a new year?

How to use post-it notes to gain meeting consensus

While brainstorming story themes recently with a client, I employed a brainstorming technique I had used numerous times before.   It makes use of Post-it notes to gain consensus in meetings where you have three or more participants.  It can also be effective in meetings with strong personalities; those with passionate agendas.

Though I used it recently in a meeting related to an eLearning / video project (which is why I’m sharing it here), you’ll see that it can effectively be used in many other business scenarios.  In fact, I wrote about this technique a couple of years ago in a similar article for BusinessCasualBlog.com.  It continues to gain a high number of hits on that blog, which tells me it’s an oft-searched for topic.  So, I figure I’ll share it here with you, as well.

Beyond Brainstorming

decision-making mindmap

If you’ve ever participated in a brainstorming session, then you know how quickly a group of folks can fill up a series of flipcharts or the white space on a white board.  Like you, I’ve participated in meetings where we successfully whittled the brainstormed list down to a prioritized short list.  Then, yet further to actionable tasks. That’s the ideal result.

That said, I’ve also been in meetings (too many) where, at the end of it all, we concluded with nothing more than a lot of great ideas on a bunch of flip charts.

It’s for this latter set of managers that I’m sharing this post.

What follows is an eight-step consensus-building process I’ve used successfully in meetings to get down to a short list of prioritized and actionable ideas after having begun with a long list of brainstormed ideas.

Now, I can’t take credit for this. It’s something I learned from others, and I doubt any of us know who started the whole thing. But, it’s worth sharing. If for nothing else, then maybe I won’t have to waste my time sitting in on too many more fruitless brainstorming meetings in the future.

So, if you learn something new here, then pay it forward. Pass this information along.

The tools

What you’ll need: Post-it notes, markers, flip charts (or white board), pens.

In anchoring a starting point, let me begin by assuming you’ve already generated a long list of brainstormed ideas.  Then, with list in hand (or strewn on flipcharts across multiple walls), do the following:

1. Group and categorize the list of ideas. This is an iterative process where the facilitator goes down the list of ideas in succession. With each list item, the group is asked if there is anything in the list above it that might make for combining or grouping. Some things to keep in mind:

  • To facilitate a smoother round, each idea should be given a letter label. (“A,” “B,”, “C,”… and so on.)
  • Avoid using numbers.  A numbered list often conveys a sense of implied rank ordering or prioritization.
  • When you combine ideas, cross out the letter (not the idea) of the list item being combined. Then, write it’s letter next to the line item to which it is being combined.

Sample Brainstorm List2. Clean up the list. Usually, the brainstorming session itself, and Step 1 above, will have taken a bit of time. The flip chart will be messy, the group will have felt like they’ve really worked hard. (Which is why some unskilled facilitators allow the meeting to adjourn immediately after brainstorming or after the grouping step. Fight this temptation.)

Instead, put everybody on a break while you (or a co-facilitator) clean up the list by re-writing the resulting grouped line items onto a clean set of flip charts.

After you’ve created a clean list, give each line item a new set of alphabetic labels. (Again, “A,” “B,” “C,”… etc.)

Conduct a weighted talley using Post-it notes.

And herein lies the crux of this process.

3. Count the number of items in the list and divide by three (3). Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, we have a list of eight items, as the image above shows.

Dividing by three (and then rounding), we end up with the number 3. (Well, 2.67…, but practically speaking, let’s round up.)

By dividing the number of line items by the number three, you’re defining the number of “votes” each member will get in the next step. (Note: Don’t get hung up on why we’re dividing by three. I’ve heard this referred to as the “N/3 Method.” It’s largely arbitrary, but generally it gives a result that reasonably assigns an “appropriate” number of votes for each participant.)

4. Distribute Post-It notes. The number of Post-Its you give out to each participant should equal the result in Step 3. So, in our example, (after rounding up) you would give three (3) Post-it notes to each participant.

5. “Pick what you like.” Instruct each member to write one letter, from the list, on each Post-it note. Each letter represents a unique line item from the list. And, no duplication of letters is allowed. In other words, no fair stacking your votes. (Unless, for some reason, the group agrees that’s okay… remember, the key thing here is to get the group to agree to the process. If they agree with that, they’ll go along with the results.)

Sample rank order during brainstorming6. Rank order. Once each participant has had an opportunity to write a letter on each of the Post-it notes they’ve been given (three in this example), instruct them now to focus on the letters on the Post-it notes, and the idea that each letter represents.

Challenge them to rank order each Post-it note by placing a number next to each letter. (1 = Lowest in their set. And, in our example, 3 = the highest. Clearly, if the result of Step 3 above dictated 5 Post-its for each participant, then 5 would then be the highest rank.)

Sample brainstorm list result using post-it notes7. Reveal their weighted tallies. After each member has had an opportunity to complete their rank ordering exercise, instruct them to all come up to the white board at the same time (or, if it’s a large meeting, then in smaller groups of 6 to 10). Have them place their respective Post-It notes next to its corresponding line item on the flip chart.

Note: This is a powerful step. It psychologically reinforces the “wisdom of the crowd.” Each participant is less likely to challenge the resulting tally since, by their participation, they’ve agreed to the process that is currently at work. And, therefore, the results.

8. Sum and prioritize. Once all participants have had an opportunity to place their Post-it note on the flip chart, you or your co-facilitator should then tally the numbers (on the Post-it notes) associated with each line item. Write the sum boldly in the margin next to the idea to which it corresponds.

The result is a prioritized list: those ideas with the highest sums (e.g., D, E and A, in our example) are assigned the highest priority.

But wait, what if there’s a tie?

Look at items B, C, and F in our example. Notice the Post-its associated with each of them add up to 3 on their respective lines. That’s not a problem. You can either follow the same steps as above or modify the steps slightly using a simple tally with a simple show of hands while focusing on only those line items that require tie breakers.

Of course, this may be moot if the goal was to prioritize and, say, identify the top 3 items from which to develop action steps and assignment of responsibilities.

Summary

What I showed you here is a basic technique that many trained facilitators may be familiar with. (While not all may do it exactly this way, each has a similar process for achieving group consensus.)

But, if this is new for you, and it helps you at your next meeting, then remember to pay it forward. Pass the information along to a friend. By doing so, you and I may be saving each other from another dreadful “go nowhere” brainstorming meeting sometime in the future.