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  • Writer's pictureMatthew B. Courtney, Ed.D.

Preparing for Improvement with a SWOT Analysis

Updated: Jan 7, 2023

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One of the best ways to begin your school improvement planning process is with a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It is a reflective tool designed to help your team think through internal and external benefits and challenges that may impact your improvement process. In this post, I want to walk you through how I lead a team through the SWOT analysis process.

Before we begin talking procedures, let’s dig a little deeper into the components of a SWOT analysis. Below is a model showing the SWOT analysis components in context. This model is from my free eBook “Tools that Drive Continuous Improvement.” The SWOT analysis focuses on identifying helpful and harmful activities, movements, social pressures, or organizational components that may impact your improvement process.

As you can see on the diagram, strengths and opportunities focus on helpful elements of your organization and community. Strengths represent inward reflection about the things your team thinks your organization does well, while opportunities represent an external focus on the things in your community that you may be able to leverage to enhance your success. Weaknesses and threats, by contrast, represent the potentially harmful things within your organization (weaknesses) and community (threats).

When I lead a team through the SWOT analysis process, it always involves a LOT of sticky notes. You can do this online too, with tools like Jamboard, but sticky notes are far more satisfying in my opinion. I pass out a fresh pad of notes to each member of the team and I set a timer for fifteen minutes. During that time, I ask the team feverishly write down all of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats they see for their organization. I always instruct them to do this on their own – we will talk about them later.

At the end of the brainstorming time, I place the SWOT grid somewhere in a visible space and have the team place their sticky notes in the proper categories. One good way to do this is with four big squares of chart paper. Once each member of the team has had a chance to organize their sticky notes, I go through each quadrant one by one and read off the various sticky notes. If a theme appears on more than one note, I layer them on top of each other to represent the magnification of the issue. As we discuss each quadrant, we work together to finalize the various components and archive them for future use.

I also pay careful attention to themes that may appear in multiple quadrants. This usually happens if you have an ideologically diverse planning team (PS – You SHOULD have an ideologically divers planning team!). Take, for example, a major external event such as a gubernatorial election. A new governor will undoubtedly have an impact on your school – but does the election represent a potential opportunity or threat to your organization? I pull these off and set them aside for further discussion. Once the basic quadrants are complete, I work closely with the team to come to a consensus on the multi-quadrant notes that I have isolated.

Having completed your SWOT analysis, the next step is to consider how the various elements you have identified may impact your improvement planning process. This is the step that a lot of people forget about. A well done SWOT analysis isn’t a brainstorming or preparatory exercise. It is a meaningful activity that should inform your individual planning steps moving forward. This is why I like to use chart paper to capture my SWOT quadrants. Tape down all the sticky notes and save your analysis for later use. When it comes time to select your improvement priorities or develop your 30-60-90 or Plan-Do-Study-Act cycles, check in with your SWOT to make sure that you are leveraging your strengths and opportunities while properly accounting for your weaknesses and threats.

I highly recommend you begin your next improvement planning cycle with a thoughtful SWOT analysis. It is an incredibly useful activity that can be completed within the context of a single planning meeting, and if you do it correctly, it can inform the rest of your planning process throughout the year. You can find a template for completing a SWOT analysis and nine other useful continuous improvement tools in my eBook, Tools that Drive Continuous Improvement. You can download it for free in The Repository; I hope you find it helpful. Good luck on your journey friends!


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