Stop analysis paralysis! Use an "Action SWOT" as part of your problem solving approach

Pitfalls abound when a team or agency prepares to improve or change. Collecting and analyzing data is a critical part of any quality improvement or quality planning process. However, with so many tools to measure and display the data, sometimes quality improvement teams can get stuck or invest too much energy admiring the problem.

Another pitfall in process improvement is the disconnection that happens between data gathering and action planning. Teams may use various QI tools in isolation, missing opportunities to connect improvement actions to the current state.

So what can you do to avoid these pitfalls?

Whether the task is preparing for program process improvement planning or agency strategic planning, a SWOT Analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) can be an effective tool for understanding the "as is" state.

The Strengths and Weaknesses are internal to the organization and in the present state. While the Opportunities and Threats are external to the organization and in the future state.

SWOT Analyses are frequently conducted entirely separately from the improvement theory development. Program staff or teams frequently complete the SWOT and then forget about it as they move forward in the problem solving process. Perhaps falling victim to flawed thinking, "It was a checklist exercise we needed to do."

Don't make your process improvement activities a box checking excercise

The Action SWOT is a tool intended to build on current state activities, and move beyond admiration, to clear action steps as shown in Figure 1. This way the SWOT becomes an integral part of the problem solving process and can been seen as a useful tool to develop an improvement theory.

Figure 1

The Action SWOT adds a second phase to developing an improvement plan. Answers to the following questions provide a focused framework for developing action plans.


  • What actions will we need to take preserve and protect the current strengths?
  • How can we prevent losing the strengths?


  • What can be done to mitigate these weaknesses, to reduce their power or influence?
  • What would it take to overcome the weaknesses?


  • How can we capitalize on the opportunities?
  • What strategies can we design that will enhance those opportunities?


  • What can be done to prevent this threat in the future?
  • How can threats be isolated?

An example of how to use this tool is as follows:

XYZ Organization wants to retain and keep its current workforce knowledgeable and increase workforce adaptability skills to meet current and future customer needs. They begin the process with an Action SWOT Analysis. They start by examining the existing strengths they have has an organization today for retaining employees and keeping their skills current.

Table 1


Preserve and Protect


Knowledgeable and adaptable employees

Updated Workforce Development plan

Pay skilled employees better than competition

In house training department

Keep courses relevant to shifting demands of the marketplace

Evaluate course offerings quarterly and update

XYZ Organization would look at the current weaknesses in the organization around retaining and keeping employee skills current.

Table 2




Employees leave for better opportunities

Promote from within

Grow the organization so more opportunities are available

Knowledge leaves with an employee

Mentoring Program with senior and junior employees.

Document all key processes in detail and capture knowledge

Develop a computer bank where all key process and organization decisions reside

After the internal scan is done then XYZ Organization would explore potential external Opportunities that they could be facing in the near future.

Table 3




Customers dissatisfied with rival’s products/services

Develop a change ready and adaptable workforce that will monitor customer needs

Use current knowledge workers to build products/services that satisfy the customer. products

Keep employee knowledge current

Build academic partnerships with a University to offer courses and advanced degrees

Have a University develop an in house satellite to offer company specific courses on company time

The final critical step involves reviewing the potential internal and external threats and answering the Action questions designed to prevent and isolate those threats.

Table 4




Employee knowledge/skills becomes obsolete

Hire new workers with desired skills or upgrade current workers with current knowledge and skills

Keep workforce development plans current and identify those with obsolete skills; design targeted improvement plans

Competitors hire away most skilled employees

Use employee satisfaction surveys to understand what motivates employees to stay.

Keep pay, fringe benefits, education, and career advancement competitive with the market

The tables are good, simple tools for gathering data in a team or agency setting. It is important to translate those ideas into a visual, brief diagram that can be posted to keep the action plan easily accessible and top of mind.

Here’s an example of a completed Action SWOT using data gathered in the Tables 1-4.

Figure 2


Use this tool in conjunction with RASIC or Gantt Charts to assure that deadlines and roles and responsibilities have been assigned. You can also do that by simply adding on two columns (one for responsibility and one for a timeline) to the tables used to gather data.

The next time you do a SWOT Analysis, do not do it as an exercise to check off the use of a tool and admire all the filled in boxes; instead, turn it into action items and make it an integral part of the problem solving process.