Thursday, October 17, 2019

A Different Way to Think About SWOT

The idea that your strengths can turn into risks was expressed very memorably by Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard, who argued that an organization’s core competencies often harden into “core rigidities.” Features that served the organization well in the past — such as its values, skills, and managerial and technical systems — can become obstacles with new projects.

Adam Brandenburger, Are Your Company’s Strengths Really Weaknesses, Harvard Business Review

This dynamic also works with individuals.

How does a strength become a weakness?

Is your expertise preventing you from seeing other options?

Are your planning talents preventing you from pivoting when a better path appears?

Do your successes inhibit agility?

Values, skills, managerial systems, and technical systems that served the company well in the past and may still be wholly appropriate for some projects or parts of projects, are experienced by others as core rigidities – inappropriate sets of knowledge.

Dorothy Leonard, Core Capabilities and Core Rigidities: A Paradox in Managing New Product Development, Strategic Management Journal, Summer 1992

The same holds true with our personal core capabilities. The values we hold (and their healthy or unhealthy manifestation), the skills we have, and the systems we develop might work for us, and might still work for us in some scenarios, but they don’t work for the circumstance and environment you are in.

It’s the “what got you here won’t get you there” tension. The most common example of this tension is the struggle many skilled individual contributors experience as they move into management. Suddenly, their skill in doing the work becomes more of a hindrance to their success than a help. The shift can be disorienting and many can’t make it – to the detriment of both themselves and their teams.

I have seen the same dynamic play out across different fields – most notably the struggle Training and Development specialists face as they attempt to become Performance Specialists – and within individuals in contexts as varied as child-rearing, up-leveling athletic skills, going from club speaker to competition speaking, and changing jobs.

We are being invited to think of our strengths and weaknesses as part of a polarity. Our strengths can be weaknesses. Our weaknesses can be our strengths.

It’s not just a matter of “playing to your strengths” or “working on your weaknesses.” We can, instead, look at what the environment needs from us and discerning whether that is an environment that will help us grow OR provide the stability and confidence we need at that moment (depending upon where we are at in our lives at that juncture).

Does the environment want your strength or your weakness? Do you want to play to your strength? Is it time to work on a weakness? Or is it time to leverage that weakness as a strength?

It’s a different perspective on the relationship between strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats and how our individual strengths and weaknesses interact with the environment.


Dorothy Leonard, Core Capabilities and Core Rigidities (pdf) – Despite this article’s age (1992), it contains a brilliant discussion of the dimensions of a core capability and the paradox inherent in these capabilities.

Adam Brandenburger, Are Your Company’s Strengths Really Weaknesses? (HBR – freemium) – This article proposes a different model for SWOT analysis and invites you to ask how your Strength becomes a Threat and your Weakness becomes an Opportunity. The article uses business as a context, but the same questions and model apply to our personal lives.

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (Amazon affiliate link) – Marshall Goldsmith’s book guides people from Individual Contributor status to Management and reminds us that our skills in doing the work (our core capability) no longer applies in managerial positions and can easily become core rigidities.

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