One of the first tenets of strategic planning is assessing Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats to determine where to best apply next efforts. However, it is most customary to perform the SWOT process on a bounded entity: an organization, for example or a city, or a given situation, or anything else that has been clearly defined.
What would happen if we instead practiced SWOT at the seams of human enterprise – exploring the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that live in the liminal spaces, the interstices, spaces in between? Those are the spaces of greatest interest, spaces of exchange and collaboration, contest and tension, where trans-actions occur.
I used this leadership idea in my last corporate job, Director of Programming for a large assisted living company, where I was responsible for facilitating exchange among peers at nine sister communities in Greater New Haven. As a group, we Directors of Programming were hung up on several “sticky wickets” – recurring problems that everyone agreed were irritating, complex, and tough to wrap our heads around solving. As an internal communications strategy we started holding monthly meetings focused on our interfaces with other departments in the company. One month was Programming and Hospitality, the next month Programming and Sales…you get the idea. We performed SWOT at the seams, and invited a regional rep from that other department to participate. Those notes were golden, and although I cannot go into gory and/or glorious detail due to non-disclosure, I can just tell you we did manage to un-stick some fairly serious wickets and prepare for an internal quality audit in which most of us scored 100%.
I continue to bring this approach into my work with nonprofit organizations and Boards. Whenever the relationship between two “things” becomes troublesome, charged, or simply particularly interesting for any reason, there’s value to be earned by a quick SWOT at the seams.
For the arts and entrepreneurial business, for example, the space covered by this blog, possible strengths might include: a rich combination of left-brainers and right-brainers, intelligence up the ying-yang, co-gravitation to urban areas, similar low-overhead space requirements, a high percentage of passionate workers, extraordinarily strong interpersonal bonds within teams, ongoing relationships with “early adopters” among customers, and leadership possessing the right set of nerves for big risk-taking that can lead to big wins. Weaknesses might include: lack of basic understanding of each other’s work processes, use of jargon that can block communication, unequal access to technological resources and infrastructure, a kind of outsider/insider mentality that can at times be perceived as offputting or even cultish, and leaders who are burning both candle-ends and constantly traveling, wishing they could teleport and/or be in two places at once.
The opportunities here at the seams of the stART up world (get it?) might be outlined thus: thinking outside the box by default (in fact, who saw the box last? Do we recall what it even looks like?) , a future orientation that can lend precision to forecasting, authentic concern with how products connect to hearts and souls, an aura of extreme coolness – some would say even a glamorous mystique, and a common investment in cities. Plus, and this is a great, BIG plus, funders would really like to see us get together more often.
One way of describing aspects of this interface some might consider threats: mission creep, socializing for its own sake, and loss of institutional memory and identity. Hate to end on a down note, but we’re out of letters.
You might as an exercise wanna try SWOTting the seams in between two bounded entities. If you ever do, lemme know what happens…