Have you ever SWOTed your company? SWOT is the most powerful technique I know to discover a company’s under-appreciated Strengths and hidden Weaknesses, and to recognize its external Opportunities and Threats. (Hence the term, “SWOT”.)



After some contemplation, I began to see how. Success can lull and it can mesmerize managers into continuing past practices while ignoring emergent threats and opportunities. They act like deer frozen in their tracks by bright lights. Some managers even become arrogant. Remember IBM? In the 1980s, IBMers were so caught up it their own success that they believed they could do no wrong. Why, in their 50-year history, they’d never laid off an employee for down-sizing! Their arrogance led them to believe, “If we build it, they will come.” Well, they built mainframes, but millions of consumers wanted PC’s, and few came.

Complacency may be the biggest threat to successful companies. In their famous 1982 book, titled In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr. described most successful companies-their structures, missions, values and focus on customer service. The authors recommended we emulate these companies. However, two years later nearly half of these “excellent” companies had fallen into trouble. Why? My opinion: complacency ruined their success.

Of course, I am not suggesting that you toss your successful practices. Instead, I recommend that you review them in light of today’s external Opportunities and Threats. Only the vigilant thrive!

This month, January, is a perfect time to revisit the company’s vision, mission, values and goals, and re-think strategies. I advise you to hold an annual SWOT session with everyone in a small organization, or with the executives of a larger company. Stage the retreat off-site if possible.

You might want to introduce your strategy session with a hint of chaos or a threat, which invites them to earnestly consider what they can do better. You want to introduce a tension that shakes up their security and discomfits employees enough to want to change, without discouraging them. The right tension, and right amount, we call “creative tension.” It’s “creative” in that it stimulates progress. Consider this:

A ship, like a human being, moves best when it is slightly athwart the wind, when it has to keep its sails tight and attend its course. Ships, like men, do poorly when the wind is directly behind, pushing them sloppily on their way so that no care is required in steering or in the management of sails; the wind seems favorable, for it flows in the direction one is heading, but actually it is destructive because it induces a relaxation in tension and skill. What is needed is a wind slightly opposed to the ship, for then tension can be maintained, and juices can flow and ideas can germinate, for ships, like men, respond to challenge.” James A. Michener, Chesapeake (l978).

Creative tension is how Mahatma Gandhi challenged the British rule in India, and Martin Luther King challenged America’s legacy of segregation. It’s how John F. Kennedy motivated the United States of America to put a man on the moon. Creative tension motivates people to act.

You might begin your SWOT session by contrasting your company’s current reality against your vision of its ideal state. You need to describe a vision, for analysis can never generate vision. “Many, who are otherwise qualified to lead, fail to do so because they try to substitute analysis for vision. What they never grasp is that the natural energy for changing reality comes from holding a picture of what might be that is more important to people than what is.” (Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline).

Harvard University’s research has verified that thinking long-term, (or in other words leading by vision) is the most important determinant of success. If you can excite your employees to appreciate the envisioned heights to which they can drive the company, they will likely feel creative tension to upgrade today’s reality.

You can lead them to describe your company’s current reality by asking them seemingly basic questions, such as “What business did we start in? Which businesses are we now in? Which businesses are we not in? Which businesses do we want to be in? What have we done especially well to get here? What are we not doing well? For which customers do we have strong competitors? For which ones do we have weak or no competitors? Which customers require the most hand-holding? Which, the least? How much does that hand-holding cost us? What else would customers pay us to do for them? Which products excite our customers, and which ones bore them? Which products should we add? Which should we drop? For which products do we have strong competitors? And which have weak, or no competitors? Which services excite customers? Which services bore them? How may we improve services? Which services should we add? Which should we drop? Which hallmarks do our customers think distinguish us from our competitors, and cause them to crave to buy from us? How can we help employees do their jobs better? How can we treat vendors better? What will it take to move us up to our vision?”

I ran a store for ten years. I never did anything like this. The price I paid for ignoring this advice: I had no life. If you are too busy to ponder these important questions, then I think you are too busy. In my experience, a good strategy-retreat stimulates ideas that can enable you to elevate your business to your vision. (That’s far better than letting it drift …and end up wherever it stops.) A quote attributed to the great philosopher Yogi Berra says it best: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might end up some place else.” I predict you won’t like that place.

“You never will be the person you can be if pressure, tension, and discipline are taken out of your life.” (James G. Bilkey) When you bring your vision to fruition, other storeowners may say of you what the drunk said about the two nuns who split apart and walked around him as he staggered down the sidewalk, “Wow, how’d she do that?” The competition may be baffled but you and I will know that the secret is spelled S-W-O-T.