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The Actionable SWOT Analysis

strategy Jan 22, 2013

Strengths. Weaknesses. Opportunities. Threats. Yes, we’ve all sat through a SWOT exercise or two (or three). Much has been written about the SWOT analysis as a business strategy tool since it first appeared in the 1960s.  

As of late, the SWOT has fallen into disfavor in certain consulting circles.  Certainly, there’s no business tool that’s right for every business or situation, but I believe the SWOT still has its uses. The point of this post, however, is this: while the SWOT equips you with some critical information (and, we hope, insights), it’s what you do with the information that makes all the difference.

So that’s where I have to ask: if you’ve ever done a SWOT analysis before, what did you do with the information?  In other words, how actionable was it?  How did it help you on a practical, tangible level?

There is still value in using the SWOT analysis, as long as you make it actionable. There’s a clear, consistent way to do it, and I’m going to show you how.

A Little Background First

Since it’s been a little while since SWOT has been widely used, it’s probably worth taking a few minutes to review.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with SWOT, or perhaps who need a little refresher, here goes…

The gist of SWOT is to provide a way for a company to analyze its Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats in relation to some important dimension — typically market position.  The idea is to set up a chart, looking something like this:

To get you started on questions, the chart above provides a good list, as well as this article over at Inc. Magazine.  Of course, these lists are just a starting-off point; you should dig as deep as possible, taking into consideration the specifics of your particular industry.

Sometimes, a marketing team might also add a column for “relevant competitors,” which I would highly recommend doing if you’re serious about having as much information as possible.  Remember, in order to go-to-market wisely, it’s not just enough to have information about YOUR company, but also about the competition.

The Actionable SWOT

An Actionable SWOT simply adds a row to the end, so you ask a question that begs a concrete response.  Specifically,

  • Strengths: How do you leverage?
  • Weaknesses: How do you mitigate?
  • Opportunities: How do you exploit?
  • Threats: How do you dissolve?

In “chart” form (for all you visual learners out there), it might look something like this:



Strengths Weaknesses

What are your strengths?


What are your weaknesses?
Take Action How do you leverage? How do you mitigate?



Opportunities Threats

What opportunities are available to you?


What trends, conditions, or competitors pose a threat to you?
Take Action How do you exploit? How do you dissolve?

The extra column or question is what makes it actionable — it doesn’t just take the analysis, “What IS?” — it asks the next logical question, “What do you do about it?” I firmly believe that without that question, the SWOT analysis falls flat — and not deliver its full “punch.”

That’s the first step, and then the next step is to prioritize the impact.  In other words, which of these strengths really help you accomplish your goals, which of these weaknesses really hurt you the most, which of these opportunities (fully realized) would have the greatest positive impact, and which of these threats (if they came to pass) would hurt you the most?

And thus you have a tool that helps you analyze very quickly what’s going on, and how to respond in a way that makes sense — whether you’re analyzing an employee, a client relationship, or your company’s place in the market.

  • How have you seen the SWOT analysis work in the past?
  • How have you seen it fall flat?
  • What ways have you utilized the SWOT in a way to make it actionable?