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Robin Weintraub: Pitfalls of SWOT Analysis

Robin Weintraub is a brillant strategy consultant who contributed an earlier post on What Makes a Good Marketing Strategist (November 2010).

She recently launched a new web site for her consulting business and shared a post on conducting a successful discovery process.

The original post, plus more business advice can be found at:


Chances are your division went through a strategic planning process last year.  But many were focused on staying the course with all the resource constraints and economic hurdles around us.   When faced with lofty customer acquisition or revenue goals, how many of us really said, “Here’s the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and do something breakthrough?”  It’s hard to think out of the box when our survival instincts are in full force.

I’ve worked with a lot of companies (and people) who know they want to do something different or game changing, but don’t know what exactly it is.  In many ways, the hardest step is figuring out what “what”  is.  Conducting an internal discovery process is an important first step to re-energize a strategic plan.  So, where to begin?

Reject SWOT

Most people start with a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).  I can’t say strongly enough: “Don’t do it!  Step away from the white board!”

Some of the problems with SWOT:

  • By putting information into discrete silos, it’s easy to omit data that doesn’t fit neatly into the four categories – like customer insights.
  • You can miss opportunities which exist between categories.  Some of the greatest insights come from connecting the dots between seemingly disparate data points.  And, looking at a challenge from a different perspective.  SWOT is simply the same old perspective.
  • SWOT hard codes weaknesses and threats into a permanent state, which in turn stifles creativity.  A common knee-jerk reaction to a new idea is “We can’t do that because…” Or, “We tried that and it didn’t work…”

To identify breakthrough opportunities, we need to rethink the challenges and ask “What if?”   And, if your objective is to overcome a limitation or leapfrog a competitive threat, then it’s now an Opportunity.

Five tips to conduct a successful discovery process:

  1. Compile – all available information in one place – even the things which don’t appear directly relevant at first.  Review research; trend reports; performance statistics; competitive benchmarking; decks from agencies,  external consultant and internal presentations. The key is to review everything possible – again – at the same time, to identify themes and observations not apparent when first viewed  in isolation.  And, to revisit information which by now has become a distant memory or should be adjusted with the benefit of hindsight.
  2. Interview – a wide range of stakeholders, internal and external to the organization, as well as at all levels of the hierarchy.  Some of the best “ah ha” moments can come from a customer service rep or a customer interview.
  3. Synthesize – all of the above.  Let me say that synthesizing is not summarizing. You need to determine the implications of the information:  What does it mean for the business in the context of the situation?  How do conflicting pieces of information fit together to make sense?   Synthesized findings become the basis for identifying – and justifying – potential opportunities, so it’s important to get this right.
  4. Marinate – for some period of time.  It’s hard for innovative ideas to surface within 10-hour workdays, multiple deliverables and quick turnarounds. There’s lots of research out there which says our brains need to rest – literally – for new ideas to pop.
  5. Evaluate – what gets you – and your team – excited (see blog on Passion).  Every time I present a list of opportunities to a client, I know immediately which will get implemented and which will be shelved.  It’s directly correlated to the level of excitement in the room.  No matter how much data supports an idea, if people aren’t jazzed, it’s not going to happen.

Let me know how the above process works for you and if you have any recommended enhancements.

Likewise, if you want to conduct a discovery process and aren’t sure what information to review, I’m happy to provide guidance.  Contact me at

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