Friday, October 23, 2015

Plus/Delta and Now/Future

You may be familiar with the SWOT "tool." It's a methodology to compare options and make decisions based on an idea's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. You can also use SWOT to plan for the future, and I often use SWOT in this way. I find SWOT to be an efficient tool in my manager's toolkit to do strategic planning.

But I found that in technology teams, folks can talk about Strengths and Weaknesses, because those are pretty easy concepts and most of them are probably thinking about it already. The words evoke a particular meaning. But I find technology folks struggle with Opportunities. They can get there, but it takes work. What is an Opportunity? In meetings where I've used SWOT, people initially think of "Opportunity" as "business opportunity." I have to help them through that. But they get stuck on Threats. The word "Threat" carries a different meaning in technology, especially if you work in security; a Threat means hacker. I always had trouble communicating the concept of "Threat" in the SWOT context.

In my experience, it's easier to not talk about SWOT directly, but to go at it a different way. We've done "Plus/Delta" exercises often enough. At the end of a meeting or after an event, we'll talk about the things that went well (Plus) and the things we might change for next time (Delta). I'm always doing a Plus/Delta with folks after a big event or a big meeting. They know how that works.

So I break up the "Plus/Delta" into two timeframes: "Now" and "Future." You can put a definition to both if you need to; you might say "Now" is anytime in the next 3 or 4 months, and "Future" is say, a year from now. Use whatever timeframes make sense for what you're after.

That's a very easy grid to understand. People can talk about what's going well now, and what things we should change now. And they can talk about what things will be strong for us in a year's time, and what things we should change in another year.

And when you think about it, that's really what SWOT is about:
  • Strengths (Plus-Now)
  • Weaknesses (Delta-Now)
  • Opportunities (Plus-Future)
  • Threats (Delta-Future)

The key is to frame the discussion at the beginning. Make it clear what you are asking people to focus on. Are you talking about new technology? Are you discussing a possible change to the infrastructure? Are you making a decision? Just make it clear at the beginning so people know how to frame their Plus/Deltas.

Also, I encourage people to take some "i-time" or "individual time" after I introduce the topic. Give them 5 minutes to think about it, and jot down their ideas on a piece of paper. Get them to write it down! It's amazing to see how the discussion changes when people commit to writing something down on a piece of paper, even if they are the only ones who will see what they wrote. In my experience, people are more forthcoming in the discussion when they have that i-time to write down a few thoughts before getting started in the discussion.

I also like to break up the room into groups of 3 (min) to 5 (max) people. Have each group work on the SWOT as a group. Give them 15 or 20 minutes to put together their own SWOT for the group. If people need to go find a separate meeting space, that's cool. After that, you call the room together, and go around the room and ask each group to share one item from the grid. So you focus on Plus-Now, and you ask "Group #1: give me one item that is working well now … Group #2: what's something else that is working well today?" And so on. If each group can only give one item at a time, no one group can dominate the discussion. When you start to get overlap, I usually do a final call for any other items that aren't on the whiteboard, then I move on to Delta-Now. And so on.

If you have a small room (say, up to about ten people) then don't break into groups. Just do it individually.

Plan for the group discussion to take about twice the time you give the individual group time. So if you have people break into groups for 20 minutes, I find it will take you 35-40 minutes to do the whiteboard discussion at the end.

But use SWOT very thoughtfully. Use the right tool for the right kind of input. SWOT works well when you are trying to make a decision or generate some items to focus on. But if you're trying to identify a set of priorities, like you want to find the top 10 strategic things that you should be doing, start with a SWOT to generate ideas, then finish with an affinity exercise to identify the priorities.
image: Wikipedia/Xhienne

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