The S_OT analysis: weaknesses?? what weaknesses?

by | Nov 1, 2023 | Articles

7 min read


Yes, S_OT. And, no, that is not a typo.

Despite the blank, your mind likely read that non-word/nonacronym as “SWOT Analysis” – the Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat Analysis commonly included in strategic planning processes. Yes, the W for “weakness” is missing—which is the whole point.

So why am I calling it a S OT analysis?

Twice in the past two months, I’ve encountered organizations engaged in something curious as they analyze strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats for strategic planning purposes: both entities chose not to call weaknesses “weaknesses.” They either used euphemisms (seemingly afraid to acknowledge that a true weakness was indeed a weakness) or used the “weakness” category to capture things that were actually threats or unfulfilled aspirations…or anything but weaknesses.

Not really surprising

But who of us, individually or as an organization, likes to admit to weaknesses? It makes us feel lesser, inadequate, maybe even judged and vulnerable. And I think that verb is key: how acknowledging weaknesses makes us feel.

But, in strategic planning, we must be clear eyed and clear headed and not pretend about our capabilities…or lack thereof. The success of the planning (and the success of the organization) depends on it.

Where else do we hide or mislabel weaknesses?

Two prominent examples come to mind of situations where, as it relates to individuals, we engage in similar behavior: in interviews for hiring decisions; and in formal performance review settings.

Think first about an interview: chitchat to get comfortable, then questions about background and credentials and “why did you leave your last position?” and possibly “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” And almost always: tell me about your strengths and weaknesses. This usually elicits reasonably accurate and even modest descriptions of strengths relevant for the position…and then either “weaknesses” irrelevant for the position (I’m not very good at writing code…when I’m interviewing for a grocery clerk position) or strengths masquerading as weaknesses (“I tend to be a workaholic”).

This, as it relates to the weaknesses, can be benign in the hiring process:i the one seeking the position will generally not pursue a position for which actual (maybe unacknowledged) weaknesses would be debilitating; and the hiring manager will (should) check for basic required competence as it relates to the open position. In such a case where a non-clueless candidate encounters a reasonably careful hiring manager, relevant weaknesses should already be off the table and not require much examination. (This gets trickier when things like cultural fit are significant and the candidate may not be aware they are material to the decision.)

So why does the “tell me about your weaknesses” dance in an interview get a bit bizarre sometimes? Because an exchange like the following where an actual weakness comes up is unlikely: “Weaknesses? Yes, I know you require a happy, friendly person for that teller role…but I’m a grumpy curmudgeon who doesn’t like people.” Usually, if the interviewer asks the question, the interviewee comes up with a “weakness” that is either mild (to the verge of irrelevance) or a veiled strength.

What about performance reviews?

Here, as with an interview, the strengths and weaknesses under consideration are those relevant for the job. If I’m working as a Chief Financial Officer, the fact that I cannot dunk a basketball is—though true and mildly sad—not a bit relevant.

But when, as a CFO, I had periodic conversations with individuals on my team about their performance, we definitely talked about relevant weaknesses. And each individual came to the discussion prepared for exactly that.

But, often out of kindness, supervisors use softening euphemistic language about the relevant weaknesses: “Yes, esteemed colleague, you are doing well on X and Y…and you need to pick up your game with Z…” or “you have an opportunity to improve in Z.”

Yet this doesn’t feel dishonest: the fact that the esteemed colleague did need to do better (learn this; quit forgetting that; get along better with her; keep me better informed; show up on time; get off the dang cell phone; etc.) is clear, but it’s cast in an encouraging, hopeful tone.ii

And that’s appropriate: the information the employee needs to hear is communicated, and in a fashion that doesn’t send the employee out the door defeated and discouraged.

Why the risk is low as it relates to individuals’ weaknesses

No individual is strong in everything. Inescapable corollary: every individual has at least some weaknesses.

Consequently, no individual in an organization is strong in everything important for the organization. But the beauty of organizations is the blending of strengths: strengths that complement and enhance others’ strengths; and strengths that mitigate and offset others’ weaknesses.

We never expect every person in an organization to have all the specific strengths required for the organization’s success.iii (The Apostle Paul described this powerful reality as it relates to the Christian church by using the analogy of the church as a body: the parts of the body are diverse and mutually supporting; we need the feet and eyes and ears and all the parts, all doing their specific roles.)

Consequently, as a leader, I need not hyperventilate about a specific individual’s weaknesses provided they aren’t relevant to that individual’s role, and others in the organization have mitigating and offsetting strengths.

So using euphemism in performance reviews or encountering fuzzy faux weaknesses in interviews is not in itself a crisis.

When we fail to be honest about weaknesses in strategic planning

But what happens when we shift from thinking about weaknesses of individuals to weaknesses of the organization itself? We cannot safely practice the “nothing-to-see-here” approach as we consider the organization as a whole. The effects are different, the risks are high.

First: what are relevant weaknesses for an organization? Composite team competence shooting three pointer baskets matters for some organizations, not for others. It’s all about the mission, vision and values of the organization. For each mission/vision/values combination, certain organizational strengths are essential, and certain organizational weaknesses are fundamentally debilitating. A mission or strategy focused on growth through acquisition will be a mission not accomplished if the organization does not have internal and external resources with requisite strengths.

Second: the time frame matters. You need strengths for where you are now as an organization, and you need, by the time you get there, strengths for where you want to go. If you are facing or planning change, you can’t focus solely on the current needs.

Third: weaknesses often exist on a continuum. It’s not simply a or non-a, weak or strong. The continuum can run from very strong to gaining competence to kinda weak to absolute disaster.

Finally: for organizations, a specific weakness is generally one of the following: (a) an absence of an important capability or capacity (we don’t have anyone who can create a website); or (b) an existing capability or capacity that is not performing well (we have someone who can work on websites, but he doesn’t do it very well).iv

What to do about it

In organizations, if the relevant weakness is mission critical, calling it anything but a weakness does not help, and can mask the seriousness of the problem. If it is debilitating, you need to know that and deal with it accordingly.

But here’s what I’ve seen in the two recent instances I mentioned earlier: one entity calling true organizational weaknesses “opportunities to improve”; and the other being reluctant to call anything a weakness yet dutifully filling the “weakness” box with items they called weaknesses but were actually threats (external challenges related to accomplishing the mission) or mitigating actions or strategic aspirations (“we should” do X or Y).

Absolute clarity regarding organizational weaknesses is vital for leaders, and hiding behind comforting, obfuscating language does not help.

Why do we do it?

We want to be nice: we don’t want to call another department out and embarrass them (and invite them to follow suit). We don’t want to call negative attention to our own department and are ashamed we are the locus of the weakness.

But it’s so important, we must get past that. We can be kind in how we address the matter without being paralyzed by fear of speaking uncomfortable truth masquerading as niceness. And, if we know our own department is the problem, we can summon up courage to speak uncomfortable truth about ourselves, and not force others to speak up (or not).v

From S  OT to SWOT

It’s not easy but it’s essential. As we think about strategy and direction and where we want to go and who we want to be when we grow up and how we want to change the world, we must face and deal with our organizational weaknesses. Pretending they aren’t there is to live a fantasy, and to leave your imagined organizational future a fantasy as well.

i Assuming the hiring manager and supporting HR folks adequately vet the candidate.

ii Of course, a more severe failure to meet expectations or a clueless, non-self aware employee may require more direct, strongly worded feedback.

iii …though we may insist that all employees share a crucial set of vital strengths (integrity; customer focus; etc.)

iv And these often lead to follow-up steps that intersect with the weakness discussions with individuals: (a) possibly in a hiring decision to fill a competence or capability gap; (b) likely in an off-cycle performance review discussion to provide feedback to an individual who isn’t performing well (and depending on how that goes, eventually in a firing decision followed by a hiring decision…with yet another weakness discussion).

v If it’s a weakness in your department and others outside your department are aware of it, speaking up yourself demonstrates humility and transparency and avoids forcing someone outside your department to speak up; it’s always less awkward to admit it yourself. If others outside your department are not aware, the importance of speaking up grows: if you don’t, no one will; and the organization will be at risk for not identifying the risk and agreeing on relevant actions steps, mitigation actions, resource prioritization etc.