Beef Up Your SWOT Analysis.

In my never-ending quest to become the world’s best interpretive planner, I’m constantly evaluating the tools that I use. One of a planner’s most basic exercises is the SWOT analysis, where you take stock of your client’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

A staple of virtually all strategic plans, interpretive plans, visitor experience strategies, and a lot of other processes, a SWOT analysis is the process of gathering people who know the organization or the program well and asking them to enumerate two things that are internal to the organization—strengths and weaknesses—and two things that are external: opportunities and threats. For example, if they say something like, “We suck at bookkeeping”, well, that’s a weakness. But if they say, “That new museum up the road is going to eat our lunch”, that’s a threat.

As the SWOT facilitator, I listen, take notes, and then summarize the analysis. I use that analysis to help plan a course of action in the future—one that builds on the strengths, addresses the weaknesses, seizes the opportunities, and counters the threats.

Simple, right?

Except lately I’ve been figuring out how to use the SWOT analysis to investigate deeper indicators of an organization’s health. Because honestly, sometimes this basic planning stuff gets dull and I need to try to dig up really juicy dirt to keep me going.

So here’s what I do: as I note all the SWOT outputs, I tag them with who said them. Every single comment is tagged with who said it. I don’t need individual names, necessarily—sometimes you want folks to have confidentiality—but I do track roles. (And this is way easier when taking comments in written form via something like Mentimeter, rather than madly trying to take notes and facilitate the discussion at the same time. I mean, I can type fast but there’s a limit.)

Roles are important.

In a SWOT, I’ve found that it’s important to tag all the comments that come from staff versus all the comments that come from the board. Likewise all the volunteer comments; and lastly all the member comments. Oh, stakeholders too. Tag each comment with the organizational role of the person who said it.

Nerding Out with a SWOT Database

Next I upload all of the comments into my fave database application, Airtable. (Though honestly any database will do. Not Excel though, ok? Trust me. Excel is a kickass tool but it’s not a database.)

From there I do a qualitative text analysis of the comments, which can be excruciating, frankly. I really wish I could get AI to do a decent job of this but so far no luck. It just either totally misses the good parts or starts making random crap up. Maybe it’ll get better; maybe I’ll get better at using it. But for now, I’m doing a full-on old-school qualitative text analysis, lumping all of those comments into codes, like: “Concerns about overtime”, “Threat of climate change”, “Absenteeism an issue”, “Concerns about rising costs”, “Gerry is an a-hole” and that kind of thing.

As I amass these codes, I count them. How many people think Gerry is an a-hole? Is it just one person or do a whole lot of people feel that way?

The weighting of the codes is where you get your top SWOT conclusions from. If a whole lot of people are concerned with overtime, well, you know where to guide the organization in its next planning cycle.

But here’s where tagging the SWOT analysis by role becomes a cool asset. Let’s say that you start to see that concern with overtime rise to the top… but your database tells you that virtually all of those comments are coming from staff. Meanwhile, those who are tagged as board members are all talking about the organization’s efficiency as a major strength. Uh, oh. You’ve got a disconnect. The board has no idea that the staff have a problem with overtime. Now you’re got something to address with them. See the advantage of tracking roles? Without isolating the fact that a particular concern is significant to a particular group, you might gloss over it as insignificant.

(Incidentally the above scenario is a major vulnerability of the nonprofit governance model: staff and board never talk. In a typical nonprofit governance model, the executive director acts as intermediary between board and staff. They are the gatekeeper of information between the two, and if that executive director is in fact part of the problem, they will do everything in their power to suppress staff comments and shield the board from information about how badly that ED is running things. Nonprofit governance is messed up. Fundamentally messed up.)

Another SWOT scenario

If ten people say that a particular staff person is arrogant or insensitive, but those ten comments aren’t numerically significant in a SWOT analysis that may have hundreds of comments, you’ll gloss over it. You’ll consider it an outlier. But, if you analyze each concern by role, you might discover that all of those comments come from volunteers, and the problem with that staffer is actually numerically significant. Again, red flag. You’ve found something problematic (and really juicy if you enjoy drama as much as I do.)

So take your SWOT analysis to a deeper level of investigation. Don’t just gather the main trends of a global analysis; subquery your SWOT by organizational role or user type. Investigate how the staff feel against how the board feel; investigate what community stakeholders think and contrast that with what the board likes to think about itself. You might find some really useful insights. And dig up just enough drama to make all that mind-numbing text analysis worthwhile.

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