Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #54

Identifying your threats is not enough

Three business workers standing in an office discussing a report. 1960s style comic strip drawing rendered by Midjourney

It’s the time of year in the higher education cycle when many leaders are thinking about:

  • initiatives to launch,
  • tactics to ground their overall efforts,
  • ways to measure their campaigns, and
  • budget requests for the upcoming academic year.

In other words, it’s strategic planning season.

In higher education strategic planning, leaders often use SWOT analyses to identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. In fact, there are several variations of this tool available now.

  • There’s the SOAR analysis, which includes a SWOT analysis’s Strengths and Opportunities sections but adds Aspirations and Results and subtracts Weaknesses and Threats.
  • The PESTEL analysis identifies environmental trends in the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal dimensions.
  • Then, a NOISE analysis covers Needs, Opportunities, Improvements, Strengths, and Exceptions.

If you’re a regular listener to our Appendix B podcast, you already know I am not exactly a fan of the SWOT analysis and its variations. To give you a quick explanation, SWOT analyses are often facilitated with little preparation or notice to the participants. They usually feature the dreaded UX research study go-to prop - the handy post-it note, if not a “shout it out and I’ll write it on a whiteboard” method. This is an excellent approach for drawing out top-of-mind intuitions of internal stakeholders. It’s also a great way of driving a team towards consensus because the top-of-mind answers are the ones we all think we know and agree on already.

The problem is SWOT analyses don’t encourage deep or divergent thinking or ideas too complex to be easily distilled into a post-it note phrase. They don’t help us discover the network of effects between ideas. And they also don’t validate any of those intuitions with data or research. For example, take a SWOT analysis that includes, among its strengths, “inclusive community.” Inclusive compared to what? Do you know if your community is more inclusive than your competitors’? How?

But this is not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the missing letter.

Say nothing I’ve said so far has persuaded you, and you’re about to SWOT it up in this house. The letter I think is missing is M.

M is for Mitigation

If you’ve gone through the trouble of identifying threats, it will be all for nothing if you haven’t devised a plan to mitigate the effects of those threats or weaknesses. Knowing them is not enough.

The reason to identify your threats is SO that you can mitigate them. Here’s how to think about it.

Reduce the chances of the threat coming to pass (Before)

Reducing the chances of a threat means taking preemptive action to prevent the threat to your organization from happening in the first place.

Reduce the effects of the threat if it does come to pass (During)

Reducing the effect of a threat means taking action to ensure that if or when the threat happens, your organization responds quickly with short-term efforts to cope with the threat in ways that undermine its immediate disruption.

Reduce the impacts of the threat when it does come to pass (After)

Reducing the impacts of a threat means taking action to ensure that if or when a threat happens, your organization responds with ongoing efforts to cope with the threat that undermines its impacts over time.

Those are your choices: Stop a threat in its tracks, reduce its effects, or reduce the impact those effects have in the long term.

Say your threat is a governor and state senate who are signaling their intentions to reduce education expenditures for a more balanced state budget. Here are your possible mitigation strategies. You could:

  • Reduce the chances of state funding cuts by spending more resources on government relations staff and strategies now.
  • Reduce the effects of state funding cuts by cutting spending, instituting a hiring freeze, and reorganizing to make work the administration more efficient.
  • Reduce the impacts of state funding cuts by building more industry partnerships or research collaborations to diversify your income streams.

Let’s get a little more specific to marketing. Say a threat to your marketing success is losing great team members with both institutional knowledge and technical marketing skills. You can:

  • Reduce the chances of losing team members by reallocating some of your marketing budget dollars to retention offers and raises, and increase their satisfaction by providing more work-from-home opportunities, flexible hours, and more professional development.
  • Reduce the effects of losing team members by allocating time toward better process documentation, implementing a solid succession plan, and providing cross-training opportunities.
  • Reduce the impacts of losing team members by building support relationships with agency partners and freelancers and actively engaging with your city’s marketing community to build out your network.

M is for Managing

If we mitigate threats, we manage weaknesses. How do you manage weaknesses?

You can shift your resources to either clear that weakness entirely or improve upon it over time. Or you can pivot your strategy so that the weakness is moot.

Or, you can pivot your strategy rendering the weakness moot.

Say your weakness is not having a social media expert on your staff. To manage this weakness, you could:

  • shift budget and salary lines to hire a social media manager on staff or hire an agency or freelancer to manage your social media campaigns.
  • shift time for a staff member or two to get professional development to run social media campaigns.
  • pivot your strategy to not use social media for prospect engagement or paid media, and grow your enrollment through other tactics where you can do well against your competitors.

So many leaders conducting strategic planning efforts include a SWOT analysis but use the results almost like loosely affiliated notes or content to draw from when assembling their plan. They create an artifact that coincides with the plan but doesn’t change or advance their tactics.

I’ve even seen strategic planning efforts that end in a list of threats and weaknesses labeled “to be aware of” as if there is nothing we can ever do about them, and the best course of action is just to be mindful of their possibility. First, this is anxiety-inducing for your teams and yourself. Second, it’s rarely true that you have no recourse other than to be aware. Third, these are the items most quickly forgotten and carried over into your strategic planning efforts years later. And, when you face the same questions and problems year after year, it indicates that you haven’t matured as an operation.

If you’re looking for help mapping mitigation and management strategies and tactics to your threats and weaknesses, call us at Bravery. We love to help with institutional planning and research. And we can validate your intuitions with market data and environmental scans to boot.

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Kristin Van Dorn
Head of Client Strategy and Research