In 1997, Terry Hill and Roy Westbrook of the London Business School published SWOT analysis: It’s time for a product recall.9 The paper has been cited by over a thousand other works, offering a vocal critique of the SWOT analysis, describing the technique as a “significant waste of time.” Hill and Westbrook reviewed British 50 companies, over 20 of which used a SWOT, finding that these organization’s application of the tool exhibited similar characteristics, such as overly long lists, generalized and meaningless descriptions, failures in prioritization, and no attempt to verify any points. The most troubling common thread the researchers found, however, was that nobody used the outputs of the SWOT analysis in subsequent strategic processes.
Hill and Westbrook aren’t the only ones to challenge the SWOT analysis from an academic perspective. As Kwamena Nyarku and Gloria Agyapong write in their review of SWOT analysis: “Some existing literature on SWOT makes the technique look too simple by just identifying favorable and unfavorable internal and external variables. It fails to share light on how the variables are to be identified or classified correctly.” The question marks around how to identify SWOT factors is powerful criticism. From the perspective of behavioral science, the ubiquity of the optimism bias in human predictions of the future10 challenges the idea that we can adequately identify our weaknesses and threats in the same light as our strengths and opportunities.
A 2019 article from Harvard Business School professor, Adam Brandenburger,11 asks readers to rethink the SWOT analysis. Brandenburger claims that an organization’s strengths can sometimes pose a threat, while weaknesses can translate to opportunities. He cites the taxi business as one whose strength rested in their market monopoly in most cities, which led the industry to neglect customer service, giving rise to ride-hailing services such as Uber. On the other side, SpaceX’s initial lack of financial resources resulted in a competitive advantage down the road through innovative production. “The downside of traditional SWOT is that it doesn’t account for the more dynamic forces at work in business,” Brandenburger writes, also mentioning how threats and opportunities can come from within, rather than just relating to external factors, as a typical SWOT analysis often does.