TOWS vs. SWOT: How to stop navel-gazing and dominate the market

Most marketers know the SWOT Analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. It’s a comfortable way to analyze a business or marketing plan. The problem is, it’s also a way to stare in the mirror and see only what you want to see. “These are our strengths. These are our weaknesses” misses out on what the marketplace thinks. It’s like saying “but enough about me, what do you think about me” is really asking for an opinion

TOWS Analysis, on the other hand, is seeing what you don’t want to see, but what you need to see. You drop the pretense and ask the hard question: what is wrong with our business? As Bob Lewis said in Infoworld, “looking first at threats and opportunities, then evaluating strengths and weaknesses in that context, provides a way to decide what to focus on that’s more intelligent than throwing a bunch of stuff onto a flipchart and choosing the favorites.” Favorites, meaning the ones that are easiest to solve.

Don’t get me wrong. SWOT is a great tool for making plans. But TOWS is an action tool, and a good one to turn to in the face of immediate threat. You use TOWS when you discover your competition puts out a new product you didn’t anticipate or suddenly buys a smaller competitor, for example, and you want to develop a fast response.

Here’s how you do a TOWS Analysis.

1. Identify the threats

Drop the pretense, drop the ego and talk about the really painful stuff. What’s taking a big, nasty bite out of your best laid plans? What just kicked your marketing campaign to the curb? Painful as this is, going here first gives you your best chance to think about what’s really cutting your best efforts short, and then focus on the actions you can take to turn it around. Go here before you even talk about your organization’s weaknesses and strengths. This is hands-on tactical business warfare at its best.

1. Start with a traditional SWOT analysis. Identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

2. Focus on your pain points. While the matrix (and your ego) may entice you into focusing on strengths first, start in the red zone on the threats, then move up to weaknesses. You know, the ugly stuff no one wants to talk about:

  • Red Zone: Weaknesses and Threats (WT) – What’s the main threat to your business and your main vulnerabilities? This is the marketplace and your competitors firing arrows right at you and the chink in the armor where you’re most exposed, so do the opposite of what most people do when faced with problems: don’t try to go around it, go right through it. Once that bandage has been ripped off, you’ve done the hardest part. It’s now time to think about how can you minimize the weaknesses and move past threats.
  • Yellow Zone: Weaknesses and Opportunities (WO) – Those annoying armor chinks you’ve identified always come with opportunities to patch the suit and even make yourself stronger, thereby outflanking your competition in doing so. Discuss how you can use your opportunities to overcome the weaknesses you are experiencing?
  • Blue Zone: Strengths and Threats (ST) – Hooray! It’s time to focus on the good stuff. What’s best about your company that you can use to cause those nasty arrows to fall away like water off a duck?
  • Green Zone: Strengths and Opportunities (SO) – How can you use the good stuff to take advantage of all the possibilities you envision?

3. Choose your best options. Develop your strategy, or enhance it, with the stuff that gives you the best opportunities, given your vision, mission, and most importantly, what’s going on the market right now—especially the scary stuff.

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