Growth Insights for CEOs

Supercharging Your SWOT, Step Two: Activating Your SWOT

Posted by Paul Sparrow



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Congratulations! If you’re reading this blog, you’ve mastered the art of collecting the data for your SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis, and have grouped similar concepts into manageable chunks of information.

At many enterprises, this is where the SWOT work dies — leaving company executives with a keen understanding of the state of their business, but lacking a clear path to rendering the findings actionable in an effort to foster real change. Think of the Starship Enterprise never returning from years of space exploration — all that knowledge and data stored in the ship’s memory banks and officer logs, yet nobody ever does anything with it. 

Well, you’re not Jean Luc Picard, and fortunately for your company, you’re not a typical CEO. You’re here because you’re interested in “activating” your SWOT — which simply means that you’ll now look to match internal factors and findings from your SWOT spreadsheet to external factors, in a bid to identify relevant strategic options that your organization may pursue. 

You want focused action and results. Live long and prosper. And read on.

The goal here is fairly straightforward — we need to come out of this phase with a blueprint for how to take advantage of opportunities, reduce threats, overcome weaknesses and exploit your strengths.

To do this, we’re going to use something I not-so-humbly call the “Sparrow Activation Method,” which is really nothing more than borrowing a great tool called the TOWS Matrix, and utilizing it in a very simple activation process. This approach helps us group your SWOT elements into actionable categories — finding a relational tie between similar concepts, regardless of whether they are considered to be an S, W, O, or T. 

A generic example of a TOWS matrix can be found here.

You probably think TOWS is just a fancy marketing gimmick that’s nothing more than saying SWOT backwards, and, perhaps, that’s true. But the matrix is a great template that, when utilized, encourages you to identify and take similar concepts from each SWOT category and turn all four (or more) into a collection of solid strategic building blocks. 

Understanding the relationship between internal strengths and external opportunities, for example, will help us to zero in on the appropriate action steps — and eliminate those sneaky little details that can throw us off course, which we want to avoid at all costs — just like a massive pimple on your nose would absolutely ruin your chances of winning a beauty pageant!

Take a look at this example of a “Sparrow TOWS Matrix” that was used in the SWOT activation process for a medical group. After completing the steps in Stage One, we learned through the grouping of recurrent themes that the practice leaders considered among their strengths that the company was:

1. Nimble
2. Responsive
3. Very strong with regard to client and patient personal interaction

But they also noted among their threats the onward march of large national organizations and multi-specialty group practices, which were known to have greater resources and well-established relationships in their existing business footprint.

In our matrix, we were able to overlay these internal strengths against external threats to produce an activation strategy that highlighted the values of a small practice organization — personal relationships and attentiveness of the practice’s members — as a keen alternative to the large behemoths encroaching on our space.

As we continued this exercise, we also overlaid things like internal weaknesses against the external opportunities; internal weaknesses against external threats; and so on. A thoughtful matrix will help you leverage strengths and minimize weaknesses that relate to your opportunities — neutralizing, neutering or minimizing any challenges that can derail your efforts.

One note — though I’m prescribing the “Sparrow TOWS Activation Method,” which is a great tool for small and mid-sized companies, larger enterprises — especially those with multiple products, markets, customer classes and lots of internal stakeholders — might benefit from greater sophistication when using the TOWS matrix.

Again, TOWS is simply used to arrange the SWOT findings in a way that focuses your attention into the areas where action is required.

Some marketers use TOWS matrices in conjunction with a sophisticated scoring method — essentially applying a weighting system to the process that helps identify prioritization. This is especially helpful with larger organizations in complex business models with multiple revenue streams. It also ensures that multiple stakeholders get on board — preventing the loudest voice in the room (acne-laden nose or not) from winning the day.

I work exclusively with small/mid-sized businesses, so this approach can often overwhelm a smaller company’s executive team, and it’s a bit like using a 12-gauge shotgun for hunting mice. I like to keep it simple, and that’s why I use a simplified TOWS approach. No voting, no mathematical averaging. Rather, let’s take the time to utilize everything we uncovered in the SWOT. If it’s important enough to make the SWOT, for a small business, it’s important enough to tackle in the activation phase.

Just bear in mind that, though the “Sparrow TOWS Activation Method” and big-company TOWS activation schemes are great ways to associate SWOT as a step towards strategic galvanization, neither can, in and of itself, activate the SWOT. You still have to identify the overarching strategy that must be pursued, and you still have to identify who will take point in executing that strategy. We’ll take a closer look at this process in our next — and final — chapter.

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Topics: Business Growth Strategy, Small Business, SWOT

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