Leadership theory is the latest field attempting to distill history into a set of marketable, organizational tactics. As a set of ideas, it is a product of the end of the Cold War. Military and corporate veterans who negotiated the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War and “glasnost” (the collapse of the Soviet Union) merged after 1991 to operationalize American globalization. At the time, President George H.W. Bush named this transition “a new world order.” It was the consolidation of a century’s work in foreign policy that stretched back to the Spanish-American War.
Arguably, the most pervasive idea to develop from this era was the process of doing a SWOT (or TOWS) analysis. This technique began as a relatively isolated intervention in corporate management, but has grown into a mantra, even a philosophy, as the digital world economy expanded. It is an acronym, of course – what Cold War relic wouldn’t be. Managers assess organizational STRENGTHS first, followed by WEAKNESSES. Then, a participatory process opens for employees to identify OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS, based on their experiences in the firm. At that point, the findings are documented and preserved to shape new priorities over the next quarter, year, or product cycle. Calling this process TOWS merely inverts the steps.
The bankruptcy of the technique at this point comes from its roots in the middle of the twentieth century. The perceptions and perspectives that shaped SWOT *as a tool* relied on a static range of pre-conditions that are no longer relevant. Most notable among these today is the existence of militarily unstable and economically evolving Europe. No matter the enormity of its recent sovereign debt crises, it does not rise to the scale of eight centuries dominated by religious and imperial warfare that defined the region from 1150 to 1950 CE.
So what can a dynamic nation or firm do to escape the pitfalls of antiquated ideas like SWOT? They can reconnect with the detailed analyses that created systems of industrialization and social advancement since 1750. A new, global Enlightenment is at hand — a Renaissance where every person, family, community, and nation can enjoy sustainable, economic stability. The key is the application of the humanities and social sciences through the professional training of engineering, sciences, medicine, and business. Systems like SWOT rely on measuring four variables in isolation at a single moment. There are better alternatives available.
One promising system considers FAILURES, ACCOMPLISHMENTS, CONTEXTS, and TIMELINES. For the C-Suite, a new acronym could be used – FACT. Where strengths and weaknesses fetishize medieval stereotypes from a Dungeons and Dragons game, failures and accomplishments rely on empirical data and reasoned analysis to shape future actions and decisions. Even more importantly, replacing opportunities and threats with contexts and timelines removes a hyper-competitive posture that can sabotage organizational productivity. Contexts and timelines provide the added benefit of more rapid adaptation across a wider range of unintended consequences (as well as unacknowledged assumptions). FACT analysis produces more dynamic organizations with greater transparency and accountability at every level.
Only the most recent graduates in fields like history, literature, politics, and anthropology have the skills and expertise to create adaptive leadership systems like FACT. Without them, all of the STEM reforms will replicate the inequalities and injustices of earlier forms of industrialization.
Dr. Walter Greason founded the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and is the author of the award-winning book, Suburban Erasure. His work is available on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).