On the Strategic Importance of Weakness & Vulnerability
Many of you will have heard me hold forth in my strategy workshops about how in the past threats and weaknesses were the poor cousins of a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis. After all, who wants to trade in the murky and unpleasant territory of threats, or delve into weaknesses? Especially when there are opportunities to exploit and strengths to leverage! Why harp on the negative … accentuate the positive! Let’s just whip through weaknesses and threats (as a matter of good form) and then move onto key strategic issues and action planning…
And it’s true: identifying strengths and opportunities is the fun part where we can get all gung-ho about creating the future. But having done this many times over the past 20 years or so, I’ve come to see the vital importance of properly grasping and dealing with threats and weaknesses.
This is for two reasons.
Firstly, it is imperative to identify and manage risks … all the more so in this day and age where operational, financial, and staffing risks are compounded by stakeholder and reputational risks. Analysing threats and weaknesses is an excellent first step in understanding and managing risks.
- Perhaps if Union Carbide had carried out a proper analysis of their weaknesses, they would have avoided the explosion that occurred on 3 December 1984 at their Bhopal plant in India which killed 3,800 people immediately and 20,000 people in total. Such an analysis might have picked up the vulnerabilities associated with the non-existent pressure gauge; the other malfunctioning or incorrectly calibrated gauges; the absence of oxygen masks for operators in the control room; the fact that not one of the six safety systems was working properly; and the fact that the work crew had been cut from 12 to 6 staff while the maintenance crew had been cut from 6 to 2.
Get a firm grip on your weaknesses and marry them to your risk management regime. Leveraging strengths to seize opportunities may be the way to create the future you want, but believe me: identifying and neutralising vulnerabilities and threats helps avoid the future you don’t want to create.
Secondly, strengths and opportunities are very often the flip-side of weaknesses and threats, so spending time digging into weaknesses and threats can yield valuable and hitherto invisible opportunities and strengths.
- A small company may feel overshadowed in the marketplace by the large corporate behemoths that generate billions of dollars in profit. Yet as anyone who has worked in a large organisation knows, they can be inwardly-focused, bureaucratic and slow to respond. The small company, on the other hand, would be well placed to leverage its ability to adroitly see and exploit niche opportunities, its proximity to customers, and its ability to ‘pivot’ as it needs to in a way that a large corporate simply can’t because it has to go up lines of management to gain the necessary approvals.
- Many organisations – especially in the not for profit arena – need to build coalitions of like-minded stakeholders in order for their cause to gain profile and traction. Yet it’s a constant challenge to be able to wrangle these stakeholders and prevent fragile coalitions from splitting. Identifying this fact, and the reach and viability of the necessary relationships, can indicate early on in a campaign where the fault lines are in a network, which relationships are the really vital ones, and who to bring into (or leave out) of the tent. Strategies can then be developed to manage each accordingly. With the threats thus neutralised, a solid network can be built which realises the opportunity presented by combining multiple membership lists, resourcing, fundraising efforts, and social media platforms into a unified movement which has the clout to influence policy.
The punchline: don’t be surprised if the same issue surfaces as both a strength and a weakness. Or as both a threat and an opportunity. Strategy is filled with double-edged swords: make sure you wield them to carve a new pathway forward … without lacerating yourself in the process.
One other thought: analyse the vulnerabilities of your competitors, detractors or opponents as well as your own. More specifically, understand their weaknesses, then aim your strengths at their weaknesses or susceptibilities. In effect, your competitor’s weaknesses represent an opportunity for you. So don’t only understand your own weaknesses, study your competitors’ as well.
Napoleon, who knew a thing or two about strategy, said:
The military principles of Caesar were those of Hannibal, and those of Hannibal were those of Alexander – to hold his forces in hand, not to be vulnerable at any front, to throw all his forces with rapidity on a given point.
Not only do you have to manage your own vulnerability, but to throw all your own forces on a given point. And what point would that be? Your opponent’s weak spot.
- Marketers Al Ries and Jack Trout point out that the number two brand in a two-horse marketing race have to take an opposite strategy from the leader, rather than emulating the leader. There was no point in Pepsi trying to take on the hundred-year-old leader Coke on its own turf. Instead, Pepsi successfully marketed itself with contemporary pop stars in the 1980s as ‘the choice of a new generation: the Pepsi Generation’.
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You need to identify your internal weaknesses and the external threats confronting your organisation. You’re operating in a stakeholder environment with multiple players, each with their own competing (and typically conflicting) agendas, all vying for legitimacy in a crowded marketplace with a news cycle that’s been compressed from 24 hours into the few seconds it takes to type a tweet.
You’ll need a hand. The first step you can take in managing your vulnerability is to contact me: call me on 0414 383 374 and we’ll plot next steps over a coffee.
I look forward to your call.
Hiram E. Casey (1963) Napoleon Bonaparte – Citizen and Soldier: His Words on War and Peace and His Aphorisms Exposition Press.
Al Ries and Jack Trout (1994) The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing HarperBusiness.
Stephen Weir (2005) History’s Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them Pier 9.
© Michael Carman 2019