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10 January 2022

Isolation Exercises in Warfare: Constructing Quadrants of SWOT Logic and why this is Unhealthy

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Original blog can be found here: https://benzweibelson.medium.com/isolation-exercises-in-warfare-constructing-quadrants-of-swot-logic-and-why-this-is-unhealthy-805cfe539540

This is an excerpt from a design monograph that addresses design, NATO operational planning and Joint planning methodologies (NATO-OPP, JPP, and various service-specific deviations therein). This monograph is pending publication and was produced through the Joint Special Operations University where the author is a design educator (contractor) for the U.S. Special Operations Command. The title of the monograph is: Disrupting Modern Military Decision-Making: Deconstructing Institutionalized Rituals through Design Synthesis.” 

oth NATO-OPP and JPP rely exclusively on analytical models throughout the steps and sequences of their decision-making methodologies. These include the COG analysis as well as a host of others including ‘Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats’ or SWOT analysis which is implied within Joint Doctrine but explicitly described in Allied Joint doctrine. NATO-OPP declares: “SWOT analysis, frequently used in strategy formulation, helps to identify the (internal) strengths and weaknesses, and (external) opportunities and threats associated with a particular object (for example, country, group, organisation or tribe).”[1] Note that the term ‘formulation’ metaphorically casts the activity within a mathematical expectation of objectivity, certainty, predictability and a stable system to render ‘input-output’ causal relationships therein. Once more, we see the natural science laboratory employed, with ‘internal’ bounding the declared friendly forces and ‘external’ bounding the outside environment. Lastly, NATO-OPP specifies just as with COGs, SWOT analytical threats and opportunities observable in the externalized environment must be tangible objects…enabling systematic logic and analytical optimization therein.

Unlike COGs that originate from the Napoleonic Era of Warfare and Clausewitz’s book On War, SWOT as a categorization model and heuristic aid did not come from a military theorist, leader or organizational ‘best practice.’ Instead, SWOT (in its recognizable contemporary framework) comes from modern business strategy applications in that it first popularized mid-twentieth century within industry. Yet epistemologically its conceptual origins do appear to link back into military decision-making. The abstract meanings behind SWOT likely are inspired from World War II constructs that migrated out of the military in the post-1945 exodus of military professionals into the civilian workforce. Concepts like ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic analysis’ would enter industry and mature in the 1950s-1960s with models like SWOT gaining popularity across commercial industry.[2]

After popularized in industry and marketed in the 1980s-1990s in various training programs and leadership books, it would migrate back into military practice. Not only is it significant that SWOT as a categorization model was designed for business and not warfare, but the purpose and organizing logic of SWOT is devoid of the scientific methodologies, objectivity, and complexity theory considerations that Joint and NATO forces likely require and may even assume their decision-making methodologies already possess. SWOT analysis considers competition “from a company-centered view within the confines of a given industry”, which is situational and relative.[3] Complexity theorist Eric Dent critiques strategic efforts with SWOT with:

This [traditional view] of strategic planning… includes developing a vision, a mission, identifying stakeholders, and doing a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. This type of analysis assumes that the environment presents opportunities and threats, not that the organization is an active player in creating opportunities and/or threats. Priesmyer (1992) adds that the traditional strategic planning model is inaccurately simplistic because “it suggests that one can understand the state of the system by assessing current conditions, when in fact an understanding of evolving conditions is important.”[4]

Yet NATO and Joint Forces are hardly alone in using SWOT today in their methodologies and doctrine. The SWOT analytical model has been widely used in marketing strategy, business strategic development and commercial enterprise since the 1960s and is accredited to Kenneth R. Andrews. Andrews sought to develop more useful corporate strategy by “aligning environmental opportunity with corporate capability…in deciding what strategy should be…its principal sub activities include (1) identifying opportunities and threats in the company’s environment…and (2) appraising the company’s strengths and weaknesses. The strategic alternative which results (is) a matching of opportunity and corporate capability.”[5] NATO and Joint staff might recognize the industry-oriented origins of SWOT analysis as non-military and independent of many of the security concerns for Armed Forces at the joint planning level as well as national, strategic and transregional contexts.

SWOT analysis is a tool developed for business strategic analysis and addresses the tensions between external developments and internal capabilities. The lack of any scientific or academic publication of SWOT-analysis in military, health care or other profession or discipline is alarming in that the wide-spread popularity of SWOT analysis appears entirely as a process-specific, heuristic aid of unknown and potentially unscientific persuasion.[6] NATO and Joint Forces might consider if contemporary doctrine employs or promotes SWOT analysis because of legitimate analytical rigor or due to the institutional pull of joint planning processes and convergent behaviors within intelligence communities.

SWOT analysis is associated with a rationalized approach to management in business enterprise. At the abstract level, practitioners using SWOT assume that the environment and problem-set they are focused upon features the following characteristics: the centralized hierarchy of the organization leads with strategy in a top-down fashion, organizations are autonomous and therefore NATO, a division-sized task force or the West Virginia National Guard can apply SWOT to design new strategic or operational paths, that organizations have clear demarcations (clear internal and external factors to analyze), and the organization is rational and should use reductionism and systematic logic to “solve complex problems.”[7] Criticism of these assumptions will be addressed below and are of significance to NATO and Joint Forces in that complex, dynamic systems tend to reject the very premises that SWOT analytical reasoning rests upon. If we are conducting security activities in complex, dynamic conflict settings and are facing creative, learning adversaries, we might be overinvesting in SWOT and by utilizing it in contemporary military decision-making and doctrine, omitting alternative models and heuristic aids that could provide deeper insights.

First, the SWOT premise that a centralized hierarchical organization might generate overarching strategy in systematic logic (input leads to desired output…A plus B should lead to C…’ends’ linked to ‘ways and means’ reverse engineered to a desired future).[8] Second, the autonomous aspect of SWOT violates modern organizational framing of networks and networked systems. In systems theory, complex systems are perpetually acting and influenced by many actors, organizations and often through loosely coupled systems of interdependent units; interdependence is the norm and not autonomous, isolated, and clearly defined entities that SWOT expects for analytical optimization. NATO doctrine states: “a problem situation can thus be understood as a balance between protecting strengths, minimizing weaknesses, exploiting opportunities and mitigating threats” in how SWOT analysis contributes to operational analysis.[9]

Readers may spot the Newtonian physics metaphors that reveal the deeper epistemological choices made in NATO doctrine. ‘Balance’ provides some suggestion of a classical physics challenge in warfare, while the rest of SWOT seems nested in the Clausewitzian metaphoric devices that “war is a duel but on a larger scale”, or as a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offered, “a good boxer’s stance conserves energy while keeping the fighter balanced, protected, and ready to throw quick, powerful punches.”[10] SWOT analysis implicitly directs military conceptualization of conflict into over-simplified physics and systematic, isolated contests of will where actions appear in linear-causal fashion.

The SWOT assumption of clearly demarcated organizations also hails from classical management theory that peaked in the 1950s prior to the awareness of systems theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and social paradigm theory. SWOT thus requires ‘closed systems’ and cannot account for open, complex and emergent systems that are the mainstay of contemporary security affairs. This is why military assimilation of the model occurred; Newtonian physics and natural science metaphoric devices pair perfectly with how SWOT analysis seeks to simplify reality analytically. The SWOT dependence on rational, centralized hierarchical organizations as the core form for analysis is another area for critique. This ‘machine bureaucracy’ mindset[11] is associated with modern military decision-making and based in turn-of-the-century early management schools such as Taylorism that spawned World War I (and World War II) era steep hierarchical processes.[12] Today’s security organizations as well as the dynamic, complex systems that produce challenging security challenges are not susceptible to this sort of oversimplification.

The application of SWOT analysis reflects convergent thinking that reinforce institutional shared values, a belief system (good versus bad, right versus wrong, strength versus weakness) that lacks reflective practice. ‘Reflective practice’ is from sociology and organizational theory and involves the strategist knowing how and why they think and act as they do within any set process or methodology; it is thinking about one’s thinking and the basis for critical self-inquiry to transform an organization toward beneficial developments and innovation.[13]

SWOT analysis directs strategic planners to either generate their own group assessments of their categorical analysis or seek out stakeholders and prepare quantitative representations of majority positions. This is consensus by convergent thinking. SWOT is based on “ideas, expertise, and assertions of exports…the analysis lacks empirical testing” and the process itself is “superficially descriptive and mechanistic.”[14] Often, as critics of SWOT analysis point out, “an important goal of SWOT-analysis is organizing support among stakeholders…some claim this was the only goal, because SWOT-analysis only confirms what they already know.”[15] SWOT analysis is, according to critics: “a catchy acronym that remains rooted in vagueness, which oversimplifies its findings and has numerous limitations.”[16]

NATO and Joint planners might assume that SWOT analysis within mission analysis or subsequent ‘course of action’ developmental steps provides some scientifically valid, objective analysis that also engages with complexity so that emergent, often difficult to anticipate outcomes to complex security activities be made more easily understood for clear commander decision-making. SWOT analysis does not provide this at all, except perhaps in the simplest security contexts that themselves hardly warrant such intense staff investment. Instead, SWOT is “a social process…the analysis is mostly based on opinions and intuition…it is more about rallying support among stakeholders than about optimizing rationality.”[17] The analytical aspects of SWOT are limited in several ways potentially unrealized by military planners conditioned to plugging information into the quadrant to formulate causal outputs.

SWOT tends to focus on increasing unit convergent thinking (group-think), enabling potential conformation biases, oversimplifying already acknowledged complex adaptive systems for sake of reinforcing institutionalisms on how NATO or Joint Forces ought to conduct complex decision-making, and SWOT promotes a linear, mechanistic single-frame future outlook. The organization launches toward a single desired goal, and SWOT supports organizational investment in which course to chart to arrive at that preconceived destination. What ‘strength’ and ‘weakness’ mean today to an organization is a limited, often heavily biased snapshot in time; emergent systems that are complex prevent tomorrow’s unknown ‘strength’ or ‘weakness’ from being linked in a clear, predictable way from today or yesterday’s strategic beliefs. If anything, today’s beliefs are focused backward on the historical precedent of multiple yesterdays;[18] this does not help in designing toward complex futures and often contains the seeds of counter-intuitiveness and irrelevance. Tsoukas frames this with:

Too heavy an influence by the past results in incapacity to see what has changed in the present and what is the likely shape of things to come. This is a problem inherent in formal organization. The latter tends to perceive the world predominantly in terms of its own cognitive categories, which are necessarily derived from past experiences. The world may be changing but the cognitive system underlying formal organization, a system that reflects and is based on past experiences, changes slowly.[19]

One last reason on why NATO and Joint Forces ought to consider modifying or replacing SWOT analysis (and other similar models) from their formal decision-making methodologies involve what the SWOT analysis attempts to do at a process level. The quality of the data that enters the SWOT is often anecdotal or of well-intended supposition. SWOT was originally developed in the analog, pre-digital information era, and often strategists insert information they determine is relevant while neglecting both information they do not possess as well as information they determine based on subjective value propositions (good, bad, strong, weak) from the model. SWOT was never intended to lead to a clear plan of action either.

SWOT “lacks guiding policy…it is simply a statement of facts, and not all of them.”[20] Arguably, the facts themselves are likely inserted into the process through non-scientific, potentially arbitrary criteria. The traditional SWOT analysis “and its outputs do not constitute analysis at all, because they are superficially descriptive and only of general perception…SWOT analysis is usually exercised as a simplified process which, for the most part, leads to strategic planning to major inefficacies.”[21] SWOT-like activities can add value, but often they allow an organization to carry on with bad practices instead. This is due to the ritualization of Newtonian styled language, metaphoric devices and underlying belief systems about war into an analytical, closed-system model that produces outputs often riddled with bias.

This excerpt is part of a larger monograph pending publication in 2022.

For more, follow Ben Zweibelson, subscribe to ‘Think JSOU’ on YouTube, consider JSOU courses, research and educational outreach by visiting https://www.jsou.us , and also connect with Ben on LinkedIn to learn more about this monograph and the planned publication in 2022.

[1] Ministry of Defence, “AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations (Edition A Version 2),” 3–20.

[2] Eric Shaw, “Marketing Strategy: From the Origin of the Concept to the Development of a Conceptual Framework,” Journal of Historical Research in Marketing 4, no. 1 (2012): 33, https://doi.org/10.1108/17557501211195055.

[3] Ming-Jer Chen and Danny Miller, “The Relational Perspective as a Business Mindset: Managerial Implications for East and West,” Academy of Management Perspectives, Exchange, August 2011, 12.

[4] Dent, “Complexity Science: A Worldview Shift,” 13.

[5] Shaw, “Marketing Strategy: From the Origin of the Concept to the Development of a Conceptual Framework,” 41.

[6] Jeroen Wijngaarden, Gerard Scholten, and Kees Wijk, “Strategic Analysis for Health Care Organizations: The Suitability of the SWOT-Analysis,” International Journal of Health Planning and Management 27 (2012): 35, https://doi.org/10.1002/hpm.1032.

[7] Wijngaarden, Scholten, and Wijk, 38.

[8] Tsoukas and Hatch, “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice: The Case for a Narrative Approach to Organizational Complexity,” 992–93.

[9] Ministry of Defence, “AJP-5: Allied Joint Doctrine for the Planning of Operations (Edition A Version 2),” 3–20.

[10] Joseph Dunford, Jr., “Gen. Dunford’s Remarks at the National Defense University Graduation” (National Defense University Graduation Ceremony, 2016, Fort McNair, Washington D.C.: www.jcs.mil, 2016), 2, https://www.jcs.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/797847/gen-dunfords-remarks-at-the-national-defense-university-graduation/.

[11] Henry Mintzberg, “The Design School: Reconsidering the Basic Premises of Strategic Management,” Strategic Management Journal 11 (1990): 191–92.

[12] Waring, “Taylorism and Beyond: Bureaucracy and Its Discontents”; Waring, Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory since 1945; Paparone, The Sociology of Military Science: Prospects for Postinstitutional Military Design; Paparone, “How We Fight: A Critical Exploration of US Military Doctrine.”

[13] Donald Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, 1st Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1984); Christopher Paparone and George Reed, “The Reflective Military Practitioner: How Military Professionals Think in Action,” Military Review, April 2008, 66–76; Willemien Visser, “Schön: Design as a Reflective Practice,” Collection, Art+Design & Psychology, no. 2 (2010): 21–25.

[14] Charis Vlados and Dimos Chatzinikolaou, “Toward a Restructuration of the Conventional SWOT Analysis,” Business and Management Studies, RedFame, 5, no. 2 (June 2019): 77.

[15] Wijngaarden, Scholten, and Wijk, “Strategic Analysis for Health Care Organizations: The Suitability of the SWOT-Analysis,” 44.

[16] Vlados and Chatzinikolaou, “Toward a Restructuration of the Conventional SWOT Analysis,” 77.

[17] Wijngaarden, Scholten, and Wijk, “Strategic Analysis for Health Care Organizations: The Suitability of the SWOT-Analysis,” 44.

[18] Richard Daft and Karl Weick, “Toward a Model of Organizations as Interpretation Systems,” The Academy of Management Review 9, no. 2 (April 1984): 287.

[19] Tsoukas, “What Is Organizational Foresight and How Can It Be Developed?,” 273. Tsoukas cites Blackman and Henderson.

[20] John Briggs, “The Death of the SWOT Analysis,” digital online blog, Ionology.Com (blog), September 26, 2016, https://www.ionology.com/death-swot-analysis/.

[21] Vlados and Chatzinikolaou, “Toward a Restructuration of the Conventional SWOT Analysis,” 76.

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