What Are IDEAs Made Of: The SWOT

Mike Rea

IDEA Pharma

The SWOT is useless as a tool. You already know why. A “strength” in one context is a “weakness” in another. So, the context counts. You know that. Everyone knows that. So, how can a list of your product’s strengths be absolute? Even within a given context, some strengths are more important than others. You know that. Everyone knows that. So, how can a list of strengths be given equal prominence in a table in a strategic plan?

Consider a knife. Consider doing a SWOT on that knife. Consider how you could possibly reflect the knife’s strengths and weaknesses in a gunfight, versus its strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen? Context, of course, is critical. Often forgotten, but critical nonetheless. We have seen ‘we own the colour pink’ as a Strength in a SWOT, have seen ‘great brand name’ listed as a Strength. We did laugh…

It would be rather facile to say, but probably true, that the SWOT is often done badly because SWOT sounds better than TOWS – the Strengths and Weaknesses tend to be recorded first (and they’re at the top of the flipchart). It is also done badly because of the endless arguments about the definition of an Opportunity versus a Strength (is one “internal” and the other “external”..?).


“Consider a knife. Consider doing a SWOT on that knife.”


Is the SWOT wholly useless? To reflect General Eisenhower’s quote, “the plan is useless, but planning is essential,” the SWOT becomes a hopeless thing as soon as it is written down in the final plan, but the thinking that went into it should not be. No SWOT should come without a statement of the relevant environment (kitchen, gunfight…) – I think we can all agree that?

Even better, no SWOT should be done without an assessment of ‘is this an earth-shattering strength’ in this context (a +1 strength), or just a fact that’s of not much value (a 0), or is the weakness a fatal wound (a -1 weakness) or also rather neutral, or any rating in between -1 and + 1. Same with the opportunities and threats – recording those on a continuum of -1 (instant massive threat) to +1 (huge opportunity) makes a difference to how useful the SWOT becomes. Fortunately, that still leaves a nice 2×2 chart, in case anyone gets worried that you’re rebelling against the system.

So, there should be lots of SWOTS for any product, one for every context, properly graded for magnitude, properly and robustly challenged. At that point, the SWOTs can help you plan strategy, they become a tool doing a specific job, rather than trying to do every job.

Just because a screwdriver is a poor paint stirrer doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a role to play – it is a much better screwdriver than your knife.

About the author:

Mike Rea is a Principal with IDEA Pharma, who enjoys taking a look outside the industry to learn how it can think differently. For direct enquiries he can be contacted on mike.rea@ideapharma.com and for more information on IDEA Pharma please see http://www.ideapharma.com/what/default.htm.

Watch out for the next WAIMO piece just before Christmas.

Agree? Disagree? Let Mike know your views by commenting below.