I am taking a break from the cares of the world today and having a little lean and continuous improvement fun. The old TV show Different Strokes is pretty appropriate for a day like today. It was fiction of course, but you get a 1%er taking on the responsibility to raise a couple of kids from the 99%. Oh the fun and frolicking as they try to fit into each other’s worlds. Of course, this was in the carefree world before pants on the ground, hip hop sound, and designer drugs (at least not that we knew of…)
The show centered around all of the antics of the cast. One of my favorite episodes had a huge social message. As a reporter for the school newspaper, Arnold learns that drugs are being sold on school grounds. This attracts the concern of First Lady Nancy Reagan, who comes to the school to talk about her anti-drug campaign.
Sadly, the lessons didn’t last very long for the actual crew members. I wonder if Mr. Drummond would have taken the risks he did if he had conducted a SWOT analysis?
What’s a SWOT analysis?
One of the best exercises in planning I can think of is the exercise called a SWOT Analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats). If properly done, this exercise can help a team put together a plan than gives them a greater chance at success or can identify that they have enough obstacles in play that might delay their progress.
There are probably just as many ways to do a SWOT as there are consultants (meaning a lot) but over the past few years I have experimented with a few that seem to have a good rhythm. My favorite is a combination of different tools that lead to an actionable plan. There is nothing better than taking a concept and seeing it turn into something that adds value to the group you are working with as well as the end customer.
The concept is always first. It can come from anywhere but in order for it to grow into action, a careful examination of the risks and benefits is probably a great first step. Like many of you, I have run into concept people all through my professional careers. They have these brilliant streams of energy in a new idea but after a short bit you realize they have absolutely no clue on how to actually do it. In many cases, these people have another name: The Boss. It may be possible to whack some young engineer upside his or her head and send them dejectedly back to their cubicle carrying their goofy idea. But when the person who writes your evaluation and decides your next merit raise has one of theses ideas, you are a bit more reluctant to turn them off.
(Note: I was kidding about the young engineer part… any great company will cherish innovation and reward the fresh young minds that dare to step outside of the comfort zone. If they truly are inspired, they will end up being your boss at some point anyway so keep that in the back of your mind as well before you go smacking them around.)
Here are a few steps that I try and follow along the path
- Seek Clarification. Concept people sometimes have two versions of the same idea. One is a grand earth shattering scale and one may be a bit more readily obtained. Make sure you clarify which one is the primary objective. If they say both, drive towards getting them to commit towards what they can realistically expect given the time frame in mind and the amount of resources and budget they are willing to spend. If the sky is the limit, unlimited resources are provided and you can finish when it is truly finished, celebrate the day! This will probably never happen again in your entire career.
- If however, it needed done yesterday, no resources can be freed up, and your budget will be minimal, this is the most valuable time to practice your SWOT skills.
- Once you have gained a greater understanding of the actual task, quickly assemble a few trusted colleagues in a cross functional team. You don’t want people who all have the same skill sets and priorities or you risk missing something critical. Group think is easier in a comfortable setting.
- There have been times that I have actually included the company “grenade thrower” to sit in on a few meetings. On purpose. You may not be blest with one of these, but they are normally someone who will quietly come into an important conference meeting and wait until you are fully unprepared and throw a grenade into the middle of the room.
- Rarely will they actually tell you they have additional information (the grenade). Instead they will wait until just the right time. Inviting them throws them off their usual guard and can actually reveal their hidden information at a more convenient time. You should be warned never to assume they can be fully trusted by the way… my experience with professional grenade throwers is that they have an endless supply of grenades.
- In the meeting, you quickly reestablish the guidelines for how you will proceed and interact. I try to have a flip chart there and some dark markers (that actually work and are actually designed for flip charts). Start simple with a brainstorming activity to capture the general ideas of what people perceive as the obvious strengths. I like to start with the positive things first since they reinforce that the idea has some merits and is worth spending the time to develop. If the group sees nothing positive about the project, you should still move forward to determine why they think it will not be beneficial.
After you get enough bullet points for each area, prioritize the ideas. I normally use post it note voting. Each person is given an opportunity to rank the bullets for each of the four areas. Using 1 –2 –3 (high to low) the team then continues until a consensus is reached on the most important points. For the plus sides (Strengths, Opportunities) put the sheets aside for the time being. For the Weaknesses and Threats, spend a bit more time fleshing out what you have. Once a true consensus is reached for the top three in each area, put up a fresh sheet for each idea.
Now the team will begin to build countermeasures for each major item. Using a SMART approach (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound) set up plan of actions to mitigate the threat and strengthen the weak areas. Make sure that specific includes the name of the person who will ultimately be called to task for the result.
Great communication is needed from the moment the tasks are assigned until the goals are met. You may require some additional meetings but let the group make the commitment for timing and frequency. In the end, celebrate the wins and learn from the perceived losses. Keep a lessons learned log and document the entire process. I normally use Power Point since it can double as the presentation you will probably end up making to the stakeholders.
Last thought: If at all possible, have some fun while doing the activity. If the whole thing is perceived as nothing more than a time killing activity with no excitement, that will be reflected in your outcomes too.