SWOT vs. Risk Management

I was recently asked by a coworker how software risk management is different from traditional SWOT analysis. SWOT is a technique commonly used for strategic planning where the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats facing a group are compiled and analyzed to determine an appropriate course of action. Software risk management (as defined using the continuous risk management paradigm from the Software Engineering Institute) is similar in that risk management can be used for strategic planning but risks yield much different information which is applied in a very different way.

The first step when performing a SWOT analysis is to define the business objectives. This is very similar to defining a threshold of success in software risk management. The main difference is a business objective takes the form of the desired end state whereas the threshold of success is the minimum objectives necessary for the project to be successful. For example, a perfectly valid business objective might be to deliver all 100 story points by the end of the year while the threshold of success might be to deliver the core functionality (worth only about 50 story points). Would more stories completed be better? Of course, but what if you end up only completing 75 story points by the end of the year? How did you do? You missed your goal, but you still succeeded right? It’s difficult to tell without understanding the difference between wants and needs.

The main part of a SWOT analysis consists of a group session where strengths and weaknesses internal to the group and opportunities and threats external the group are identified. People like to put SWOTs into a 4x4 grid so it’s easier to look at. While there is some great advice out there for understanding what goes into a SWOT, the analysis is largely subjective, relying on a teams’ gut feelings to know the strengths from the weaknesses, the opportunities from the threats. Software risk management can be a much more systematic approach to understanding the potential dangers that face a project based on known facts when tools such as the SEI’s Taxonomy Based Questionnaire for risks (pdf) are used. Guts still come into play, but there is enough engineering in place to help people make the right decisions.

Risks are specifically actionable – depending on the risk you might be able to mitigate it by manipulating the timeline, impact of the consequence, probability of the risk occurring, or by addressing the condition. You might transfer the risk to someone else or simply accept the risk. SWOT by itself is merely a collection of statements relative to internal or external entities which may or may not actually be true. Are you good at testing? How do you know that? Is Bing really a threat to Google Search? Should you do anything about your weaknesses? Will they prevent you from achieving your business objectives? Without further analysis there really is no way to know and other than prioritizing there really is no way to analyze a SWOT, nor is there any clear direction for next steps.

Look, when planning a project you really need both SWOT analysis and risk management. SWOT is a tool for assessing capabilities while risk management is a tool for assessing the likelihood of success. Each technique serves a very different purpose. SWOT is most useful at the beginning of a project to help you figure out what you’re doing and come up with an overall strategy. Risk management, though is an ongoing activity that makes sure you don’t fall flat on your face in trying to achieve your business objectives.

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