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  • Writer's pictureMike J. Walker

Unleashing SWOT and TOWS: Mastering Strategic Planning

In the dynamic and competitive landscape of the business world, strategic planning plays a pivotal role in driving an organization's success. Among the various tools at a strategist's disposal, SWOT analysis and TOWS analysis are two highly valuable frameworks. In this blog post, we will delve into what these analyses entail, explore their differences, understand how TOWS enhances the actionability of SWOT, and outline a comprehensive approach to using both in strategic planning.


What is SWOT analysis?

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SWOT analysis is a widely used strategic planning tool that stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. It involves identifying and evaluating the internal strengths and weaknesses of an organization and external opportunities and threats in the market or industry. By assessing these factors, businesses gain valuable insights into their current position and potential areas for growth and improvement.


For example, a company may recognize its strong brand image (Strength), a limited online presence (Weakness), a growing international market (Opportunity), and increasing competition (Threat) through a SWOT analysis.


What is TOWS analysis?


TOWS analysis is an extension of SWOT, named after the rearranged components: Threats, Opportunities, Weaknesses, and Strengths. This approach takes the insights derived from the SWOT analysis and strategically formulates actionable plans to address the identified issues. TOWS analysis is a proactive framework that focuses on leveraging strengths and opportunities to overcome weaknesses and counter threats effectively.


Below is a generalized example from a real client engagement:


The Differences between TOWS and SWOT analysis

The primary difference between TOWS and SWOT analysis lies in their approach and application. SWOT analysis is mainly descriptive, providing a comprehensive snapshot of the company's internal and external landscape. Conversely, TOWS analysis is prescriptive, directing organizations towards specific actions based on the SWOT findings.


To illustrate the distinction, let's consider the previous example. In a SWOT analysis, the company identified the limited online presence (Weakness). However, in a TOWS analysis, the focus would be on how to convert the strong brand image (Strength) into an advantage by capitalizing on the growing international market (Opportunity) and countering the increasing competition (Threat) through an enhanced online presence.


Why TOWS analysis makes SWOT more actionable

TOWS analysis transforms SWOT from a mere snapshot into an actionable roadmap. It helps businesses capitalize on their strengths and external opportunities, mitigating weaknesses and threats simultaneously. By aligning strengths with opportunities, addressing weaknesses to exploit opportunities, converting weaknesses into strengths, and defending against threats, organizations can develop comprehensive and practical strategies.


For instance, a company with a technological advantage (Strength) can use TOWS analysis to explore opportunities in emerging markets, while also considering how to counter potential threats from new entrants or changing customer preferences.


SWOT and TOWS approach within strategic planning

To effectively utilize SWOT and TOWS in strategic planning, follow these steps:


Step 1: Conduct SWOT Analysis in a Workshop Setting

A SWOT analysis is a collaborative exercise that benefits greatly from a workshop setting, as it allows for diverse perspectives, interactive discussions, and collective insights. Here's a step-by-step guide on how to conduct a SWOT analysis in a workshop setting:

  1. Assemble the Workshop Team. Gather key stakeholders and participants from different departments or functional areas to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the organization. The team should include representatives from management, marketing, sales, operations, finance, and any other relevant departments.

  2. Define the Scope and Objectives. Clearly outline the scope and objectives of the SWOT analysis. Define the specific aspects of the business you want to analyze, such as a new product launch, market expansion, or overall organizational assessment. Setting clear objectives ensures the workshop stays focused and on track.

  3. Explain the SWOT Framework. Start the workshop by providing a brief explanation of the SWOT framework and its four components: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Offer examples to help participants understand each category better.

  4. Brainstorming Strengths and Weaknesses. Divide participants into smaller groups, each responsible for brainstorming either the strengths or weaknesses of the organization. Encourage open and honest discussions and provide tools like whiteboards, sticky notes, or online collaboration platforms to capture ideas.

  5. Group and Prioritize Ideas. Consolidate the ideas generated by each group, removing duplicates and clustering similar points. Once all ideas are compiled, conduct a voting process to prioritize the most critical strengths and weaknesses.

  6. Analyzing Opportunities and Threats. Repeat the brainstorming and prioritization process for identifying opportunities and threats. Participants should consider factors such as market trends, competitor analysis, technological advancements, regulatory changes, and customer preferences.

  7. SWOT Matrix Creation. After gathering and prioritizing the key factors for each category, create a SWOT matrix. This matrix visually represents the internal strengths and weaknesses against external opportunities and threats, providing a comprehensive overview of the organization's strategic position.

  8. SWOT Analysis Discussions. Facilitate discussions around the SWOT matrix, encouraging participants to explore the relationships between the four elements. Analyze how strengths can be leveraged to capitalize on opportunities, how weaknesses might hinder progress, how opportunities can address weaknesses, and how threats may impact the organization's strengths.

  9. Identify Actionable Insights. As the discussions unfold, prompt participants to identify actionable insights. Encourage them to propose strategies, initiatives, or changes based on the SWOT analysis that could positively impact the organization's performance and future direction.

  10. Document and Share Findings. Ensure all the outcomes of the SWOT analysis workshop are well-documented. Summarize the key insights, action items, and strategies discussed during the session. Share the findings with all workshop participants and relevant stakeholders to keep everyone informed and aligned.


You will find these steps will be customized based on the clients culture, maturity, or level of urgency. I find myself modifying the workshop instructions quite often to make sure it is fit for purpose with the client needs. Here is an example from a real world workshop with a client:


Step 2: Rationalize the SWOT Results

To put it simply, this step is to avoid analysis paralysis. The challenge with these analysis driven frameworks is that is incredibly easy to overanalyze which causes anxiety that hinders decision making. The neuroscience behind this that by over analyzing decreases the amount of working memory you have available to complete challenging tasks, causing your productivity to plummet even further.


I typically will end the workshop after step 1 and conduct the majority of step 2 a few days later. After that, I either setup one on one meetings or have each leader to independently verify the SWOT and explore potential connections between internal strengths and external opportunities, as well as between weaknesses and threats.


Step 3: Build your actionable strategy through TOWS analysis

A TOWS analysis builds upon the insights gained from the SWOT analysis and takes it a step further by translating the findings into actionable strategies. Conducting a TOWS analysis in a workshop setting allows participants to collaboratively formulate creative and comprehensive strategies to address challenges and leverage opportunities. Here's how to facilitate a TOWS analysis workshop:


Step 3.1: Recap SWOT Analysis

Begin the TOWS analysis workshop by recapping the key findings from the SWOT analysis. This ensures that all participants have a clear understanding of the organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

  1. Explain TOWS Framework. Introduce the TOWS framework, emphasizing that it involves matching internal strengths and weaknesses with external opportunities and threats to develop strategies. Illustrate the four quadrants of the TOWS matrix and clarify its purpose in creating actionable plans.

  2. Group Participants and Define Objectives. Divide participants into smaller groups, ideally with a mix of members from different departments and expertise. Assign each group a specific objective or challenge based on the SWOT analysis. For example, one group may focus on how to leverage strengths to capitalize on an emerging market opportunity, while another group might address how to mitigate weaknesses to counter a potential threat from a new competitor.

  3. Brainstorming Strategies. In their groups, participants should brainstorm potential strategies for each objective assigned. Encourage innovative thinking and consider both short-term and long-term strategies. The facilitator should provide guidance to ensure that ideas align with the organization's overall vision and objectives.

  4. Evaluate and Prioritize Strategies. Once each group has compiled a list of strategies, reconvene and have them present their findings to the whole workshop. Evaluate the proposed strategies together, considering factors like feasibility, resource availability, and potential impact on the organization. Collaboratively prioritize the most promising and impactful strategies.

  5. Cross-Functional Insights. Encourage cross-functional discussions during the strategy evaluation process. Different perspectives can lead to more well-rounded and comprehensive strategies, considering the potential implications across various aspects of the organization.

  6. Refine and Consolidate Strategies. After receiving feedback from the workshop participants, each group should refine and consolidate their strategies, taking into account the insights gained during the presentation and discussion phase.

  7. Create the TOWS Matrix. Based on the finalized strategies, create a TOWS matrix that visually presents the relationships between internal strengths/weaknesses and external opportunities/threats. This matrix will serve as the roadmap for implementing the chosen strategies.

  8. Draft Actionable Plans. Translate the strategies into actionable plans by breaking them down into specific tasks, assigning responsibilities, and establishing timelines. This step ensures that the strategies are implemented effectively and efficiently.





Step 4: Implement and Monitor

Implementing the strategies derived from the SWOT and TOWS analyses is a crucial phase in the strategic planning process. This step involves translating the identified action plans into tangible initiatives and actively managing their execution. Effective implementation and continuous monitoring are essential to ensure that the organization stays on track and achieves its strategic objectives.


Below is the way I execute and monitor SWOT and TOWS strategies:

  1. Develop Detailed Action Plans. Break down the strategies into specific, actionable steps. Create detailed action plans that outline tasks, responsibilities, timelines, required resources, and key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure progress. Assign accountability for each task to individuals or teams to ensure clear ownership.

  2. Allocate Resources. Evaluate the resources needed to execute the action plans successfully. Allocate budgets, personnel, technology, and any other necessary resources to support the implementation process. Ensure that the resource allocation aligns with the strategic priorities and organizational capacity.

  3. Communicate and Align. Effective communication is critical during the implementation phase. Ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the strategies, action plans, and their roles in the process. Encourage open communication channels to address any concerns or challenges promptly. Alignment among team members ensures a unified effort towards the organization's goals.

  4. Iteratively create MVPs. For more significant strategic initiatives, consider a MVP strategy on a smaller scale before full implementation. This approach allows organizations to identify potential issues, gather feedback, and make necessary adjustments before a full-scale rollout.

  5. Create a ongoing process to Monitor Progress. Regularly track and monitor the progress of each strategy against the established KPIs. Set up reporting mechanisms to capture relevant data and performance metrics. Regular reviews enable the organization to identify early warning signs, celebrate successes, and make informed decisions promptly.

  6. Review and Refine. Periodically review the strategies' effectiveness and impact on the organization's performance. Gather feedback from stakeholders and identify areas that require refinement. Continuous improvement ensures that the organization remains responsive to changing market conditions and evolving goals.




Conclusion

Conducting a SWOT analysis in a workshop setting fosters collaboration, knowledge-sharing, and creativity. It enables organizations to gather diverse perspectives, critically evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, and identify opportunities and threats, ultimately leading to well-informed strategic decision-making. By following these steps, businesses can conduct effective SWOT workshops that lay the foundation for successful strategic planning and implementation.



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