Why SWOT Sucks


SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) continues to be popular for some reason, and it’s great, because it gives me a very fast way to figure out that someone doesn’t know what they’re doing. It saves me time, and that’s lovely.

SWOT is conceptually simple to understand, which is also great, because for every problem there exists a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong. SWOT is the wrong tool for everything you’re trying to use it for, so just stop if you want to be taken seriously by people who actually know what they’re doing.

I’m not the only one, and there’s a good chunk of research done since SWOT was first devised back in the 1960s. Check out Google Scholar for a quick list. Easy, wasn’t it? But people are too busy to read actual research, so here’s a short summary of why SWOT is stupid.

Define Weakness

SWOT has two major axes: internal and external, positive and negative. It lets you neatly encapsulate all the attributes of an organisation — or situation, or whatever you’re SWOTting — into a 4 box matrix beloved of management consultants worldwide. The trouble with this is that whether something is a positive or negative is entirely subjective.

Is having a large network of warehouses a strength or a weakness? It depends, because on the one hand, having lots of warehouses close to your customers helps you get product to them faster, like Amazon Prime (strength) but on the other hand, it’s capital intensive to buy and maintain, so it costs you a lot of money (weakness). But that also means it’s expensive for competitors to enter the market, because they would need to spend a bunch of money to get similar distribution capability as you (strength). Unless they can find a way to get the same distribution as you without buying all the warehouses (weakness).

SWOT doesn’t give you any insight about what you should do. Should you buy more warehouses? Or less?

If an analysis tool doesn’t help you make decisions, then it’s useless. All SWOT does is give you another way to make a list of things that give you the illusion of knowing something, when all it does is mislead you, depending on how whoever wrote the list decided to classify things as a strength or a weakness.

What one person sees as a strength could be someone else’s weakness. Ditto with opportunity or threat.

Whether a situation is a threat or opportunity depends entirely on what you, subjectively, think about it. That company over there has 70% market share in a given product category. Is it an opportunity, or a threat? On the one hand, they might be well funded, disciplined, and able to defend their market share very well (threat). On the other, maybe they’re not serving their customers all that well, and a small, more nimble competitor might be able to take a bunch of high-margin customers from them (opportunity).

There are other analysis techniques that are far more useful (value chains, Porter’s five forces, industry structure analysis) but even they have their limits, and it’s important to know what they are rather than just blindly apply them to every situation you come across.

Don’t paint your house with a hammer, and stop using a broken tool altogether.

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  1. Richard Houghton

    Is it that SWOT sucks, or that it’s typically just used for the wrong thing?
    As a way of creating a visual list it seems like a nice approach vs. just a bunch of bullet points or Excel spreadsheet?
    As a decision making mechanism – well I guess we all understand your position on this :-)

  2. That’s why SWOT sucks. It’s held up as a tool for analysis and understanding, and good for neither. I argue that it is actively worse than a simple list, because it purports to provide some deeper insight into the situation, but it doesn’t. Quite the opposite. It is worse than nothing, because with nothing you at least know you don’t know anything. SWOT lies to you about what you know.

    If you just want to make a pretty list, go right ahead. Use all the fonts you like. Just don’t make out that it’s anything more than a list.

    Unless you enjoy looking like an idiot. In which case, SWOT is ideal. ;)

  3. I’ve also seen some scathing critique of the five forces (.. http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2012/11/24/even-monitor-didnt-believe-in-the-five-forces/), and I’m having some serious doubts about the way people use value networks and misapply disruption theory.

    Having said that they can be excellent tools for insight, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the tool that’s at fault. While I agree I’ve seen some truly awful SWOT analysis, I’ve also seen it used for good effect, even cases where there have indeed been arguments about whether something was a weakness or a strength that turned out to be really valuable.

    In my experience, people LOVE quadrants, be they magic or otherwise .. and yes, they’re often, simple, obvious, and allow people to come to the wrong conclusion easily.

    So is the problem specifically SWOT or is there something inherently flawed about quadrants as a lens through which to see the truth of things ?

  4. All models are wrong, but some are useful.
    The trick is knowing which ones, and where they’re wrong.

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