There’s a popular exercise used in strategic planning called SWOT. It stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Cindy Miller Communications has used it many times in helping companies (including our own) plan communication strategies.
Over the years we’ve observed a few things about the exercise:
- Executives tend to overestimate strengths and underestimate weaknesses.
- They are surprisingly adept at recognizing opportunities.
- They don’t like to dwell on threats.
All strategic plans are exercises in optimism. They map out a future where, under optimum conditions, results will be positive. When executed well, strategic plans can enhance strengths and minimize weaknesses by concentrating on insightfully defined opportunities.
Then there are the threats. Executives don’t like to spend time speculating about what can go wrong. To be sure, the probability of threats is easily acknowledged, but all too often just as easily dismissed. “Of course that could happened, but the likelihood is remote.”
Until a crisis presents itself. Paula Dean was riding high when some offhanded and insensitive remarks almost destroyed her food empire. Domino’s Pizza was enjoying a surge in sales when some sophomoric employees posted a disgusting video.
Bad things happen to good companies. Tragedy is part of life. What’s really tragic, however, is that many of the crises lurking over the horizon can be anticipated and prepared for. Going back to the SWOT exercise, the Threats component deserves more reflection than it usually receives.
In future blogs, we’ll offer some examples of how smart companies have strategically planned not only how to succeed, but how to endure and overcome failure. The lesson here is to plan for both.
Peter Schwartz, writing in “The Art of the Long View,” a classis text on strategic planning, described how animals see things differently. A bee’s eye, for example, perceives hundreds of tiny images at once. A frog, on the other had, sees motion across a field of vision that lacks depth perception.
It was the horse that Schwartz found most interesting. Because its eyes are mounted on the side of its head, the horse’s vision is sharpest on the periphery, quite unlike humans, who see clearly straight ahead but not to the side. The horse has a built-in width of vision that we lack.
This is more than a metaphor. Threats invariably come from the periphery. Just ask the folks at Kodak or any daily newspaper. Similarly, a crisis seldom comes at you straight-on; it comes “out of the blue” –– unanticipated, unprepared for.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The next time you consider doing a SWOT exercise, write it this way: swoT. It will improve the outcome.