Assessing Strengths & Weaknesses

Almost every business goes through a SWOT process in which a team is assembled to assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Oftentimes, management brings in an objective, third-party consultant when the internal team realizes that their perspective is skewed by being too close to the subject under study. After all, look at any advice columnist’s responses. It’s much easier to look in from the outside and identify problems and suggest solutions when: 1) you’re not the one identified as a problem and 2) you’re not the one affected by the solution.

That doesn’t mean that advice columnists or management consultants have easy jobs. They know that the hardest part of the SWOT analysis is implementation of the recommendations that arise from the exercise.

Any savvy business owner knows his or her rivals and challenges, and usually knows or figures out the opportunities for growth. But identifying and defining the strengths and weaknesses that help to position the business in the marketplace elude close examination and specification. Any company’s literature may boast that “Our strength is in the excellence of our people.” That’s so general and vague that it holds no meaning whatsoever. Think about it: no company will declare that its employees lack essential skills. No company will market itself has having “adequate” products or services. Superlatives reign and they’re mostly devoid of meaning. “New and improved” means that the product you’ve been selling for years was inadequate before.

Then, of course, what consultant has not come across the problem of having identified the bottleneck, the hindrance, the impediment to success as the very person or persons who hired his or her services? How does the consultant tell management, “You have a great labor pool, but you’re holding the business back?” This might segue into the old truism that “there’s no I in team,” because the old barrel racing retort to that points out, “but there’s a U in suck.” This is the point where tact and honesty collide.

But, I digress. Let’s return to assessing strengths and weaknesses.

Identification of the internal and external, positive and negative, strengths and weaknesses requires a step-by-step process to guide the effort and often results in matrices that organize those traits or grids that put the brainstormed thoughts into some sort of organization to maximize comprehension of the team gathered to make sense of it and determine what to do next. Community Tool Box offers examples of several types of matrices related to a SWOT analysis.

During the SWOT analysis, participants must exercise candor, flattering or not; otherwise, the exercise will fail because the plan of action will be based on faulty information and inaccurate presumptions. Large corporations with multiple layers of management will shuffle ineffective management and executive personnel to positions where they can better serve the interests of the organization, or terminate their employment altogether for the good of the business. Small businesses don’t have that luxury. Determination of a company’s CEO, who likely founded the business, as the impediment for growth and continued success clashes against the very culture of the business and the realization that, without the CEO, there’s no company, and no company means people lose their jobs.

Identification of your business’ strengths and weaknesses begins in general terms which a skilled facilitator then helps the team refine until the real information comes out. This is the opposite of the value engineering job plan which works to define an objective to a level of extreme abstraction. Instead of heading for the bird’s eye view, you’re using a microscope to pinpoint those characteristics that should be expanded and complemented and those which should be minimized or eradicated. The exercise also helps the team discern whether certain business directions suit the company and the niche it aims to serve, because–let’s be honest–no business can be everything to everyone. The knowledge yielded may indicate cutting off certain aspects of the business that do not or no longer serve the business’ best interests, or it may reveal where additional personnel and/or subcontractors should be added to enable the company to better fulfill the needs of its target clientele.