Flexible Focus #25: Assessing your situation with a Mandala SWOT analysis

by William Reed on October 28, 2010

The current economy and business environment could be referred to as a SWOT Cloud, a shifting set of circumstances that conceals all manner of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The best approach to see your way, much less navigate your way through the cloud safely and successfully is to understand these four elements in relation to each other. In terms of the Mandala Chart, this means seeing the big picture, the small details, and the cross-connections all at the same time with flexible focus.

The SWOT Analysis model is originally attributed to Albert Humphrey from his work at Stanford University in the 1960s and 1970s. The purpose of a SWOT analysis is to give you more clarity in thinking about nebulous or complex business environments. It is typically done on a 4-square matrix, which often ends up as little more than a checklist in table form. Though it is still widely used today, SWOT Analysis has undergone some criticism, partly by those who want to add to it to promote their own new models, but also I believe because of the limitation of the 2-dimensional matrix.

The A-frame Mandala Chart starts with the 4 SWOT factors, but leaves the frames in between open to enable you to view the situation from 8 vantage points, each of which can be expanded by 8 if you want to expand to the B-frame Mandala Chart with 64 elements. Theoretically, you can expand even further by multiplying any frame by 8, but as a practical matter this is likely to get you lost in space. The downloadable A-frame Mandala SWOT Chart is a practical place to begin.

Issues with 2-dimensional thinking

The first thing to consider is why the traditional 4-frame SWOT Analysis Matrix tends to break down in the face of a true SWOT Cloud environment. The Matrix is useful when comparing two fixed sets of variables, hence 2 x 2 = 4 frames. You have an x-axis and a y-axis. Everything in that domain is framed 2-dimensionally above and below the horizontal axis, and the right or left of the vertical axis. This can be quite helpful when plotting the relationship of two fixed sets of variables, but does not allow for potentially significant influences in the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, dimensions and beyond. Moreover, all comparisons happen with two variables as if they were separate entities, black and white. There is no convenient way to visualize such factors as changes over time, or what would happen if you introduced new variables that could influence, or even totally change the situation.

You might say that the 8-frame Mandala Chart is also 2-dimensional, but it only looks this way on paper. It looks very different as you gain experience in using the Mandala Chart to give you flexible focus for real situations. The 8-frame Mandala Chart gives you a sliding scale, a way to shift your perspective freely, and a means of encountering serendipitous solutions in the process. Serendipity is the process of making a valuable discovery in the process of looking for something else. It is the art of peripheral vision, of catching something important, that might otherwise be missed if you were too attached to one set of assumptions or a fixed point of view.

Beyond checklist thinking

We have been taught to make checklists from an early age. It is difficult to overcome the habit of thinking that if we just write down a list of things to do, of things to check, then everything will go smoothly. In your experience, how often has this been so?

A checklist might work well if you are planning a trip and want to be sure you pack everything you will need. It can certainly help you remember and organize a shopping list. It can also be useful as a cross-check of procedures for maintenance of a machine. However, when it comes to something more complicated, like planning a business strategy, making a difficult decision in complex circumstances, or dealing with almost anything that is hidden inside the SWOT Cloud, then the checklist can not only be useless but actually harmful, in that it limits your ability to keep an open mind with flexible focus.

What goes in the empty frames?

Unlike many Mandala Chart templates, the SWOT Mandala Chart only fills in the four corner frames, and starts with the frames in between being empty. Once the corner squares for STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES, OPPORTUNITIES, and THREATS have been seeded, then you look at the chart with peripheral vision, inviting new insights and discoveries that are not likely to be found by further extending the list.

Another way of looking at the known elements is to consider them as a combination of internal and external, positive and negative factors. Strengths and Weaknesses are internal factors, whereas Opportunities and Threats are external factors. Recognizing the source or location of the factors can already assist in giving you a more flexible point of view than you would get from gazing at the shifting patterns in the SWOT Cloud.

Because SWOT is a tool of analysis, you start by listing and looking at the known elements in the corners. Then with peripheral vision you are more likely to encounter the insights of intuition, in the fields of serendipity.

Group Brainwriting SWOT Exercise

Brainwriting is a technique first introduced by the late Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in Physics, and later developed by Horst Geschka and his associates at the Batelle Institute in Frankfurt, Germany.

In a nutshell, it involves writing an idea on a card, and then passing the cards around the table to repeat the process while adding ideas to a list that was started by someone else, and alternates to another person each time the cards are passed. This has two advantages. First, because it is done in silence and anonymously as writing, no one is able to dominate the group through authority or outspokenness. Second, because you are exposed to and stimulated by the ideas of others, you tend to develop by increments a more flexible point of view.

Once the cards are filled, or have made a complete round, the ideas are grouped and shared for further analysis. There are various ways of doing the Brainwriting technique, using cards or on a sheet of paper, but the end result is a large number of ideas produced in a small amount of time.

This can be applied to the SWOT Analysis as well, by using color coded cards for the for factors in SWOT. Once the best ideas have been sorted and selected, they can be added to the SWOT Mandala Chart and presented to the group on a single sheet of paper for discussion.

The advantage of this approach is that it gives you access to the wisdom of the group operating in flexible focus, where the sky is the limit. The best way to understand the SWOT Mandala Chart is to use it yourself, and experience how it helps clear away the SWOT Clouds.

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