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This content is taken from the University of Leeds & Institute of Coding's online course, Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve. Join the course to learn more.

A problem solving tool

You saw in the previous step that problems might not always be what they first appear, and that you should ask questions to understand all of the elements that contribute to a problem.

montage of images from the course

Asking questions helps you find the root causes of a problem, narrowing your focus. But problems happen in wider contexts, and many factors may complicate them. Stepping back and examining a problem from many angles helps you understand their complexity, and find new ways of thinking about them.

One tool that you can use to think about all aspects of a problem is SWOT analysis. It is a simple tool that lets you evaluate both the positive and negative aspects of a situation, and also helps you start to build possible solutions.

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. SWOT analysis is presented as a 2x2 grid, where you or your organisation’s internal strengths are balanced by its weaknesses, and external opportunities by threats that are outside your control. Strengths and opportunities are helpful factors, whereas weaknesses and threats may hinder your efforts.

Starting with your problem definition in mind, you work through each sector in as much detail as you can. You might like to make notes to keep a record of your thoughts and ideas.

Opportunities are changes in the outside world that would have a positive outcome for you:

  • What trends can you take advantage of?
  • What new partnerships or relationships could you make?
  • Can new technologies help you?

Threats are external obstacles and changes that could harm you:

  • What challenges do you face?
  • What are your competitors doing?
  • What is changing in the near future that might cause you problems?

Weaknesses are things you or your organisation don’t do so well:

  • What could you improve?
  • What are sources of pressure or stress for you?
  • What might other people see as weaknesses?

Strengths are things you or your organisation is good at or resources you can draw on:

  • What do you do better than anyone else?
  • What makes you unique?
  • What resources can you draw on that others can’t?
  • What do other people think you’re good at?

You should reflect on the questions critically and be honest - it’s normal to have weaknesses, and thinking about weaknesses and threats can help you identify more strengths and opportunities.

When thinking about external factors, you can use the acronym PESTLE as a prompt to think about all of the factors that might influence your situation. PESTLE stands for:

  • Political: What’s the impact of government and policies in your country/region?
  • Economic: Is the economy in your country/region thriving? Or is it in a recession?
  • Social: Are people happy with the current state of society in your region, or angry about particular things?
  • Technological: Are new technologies changing what you do, or how you do it?
  • Legal: Do any laws or changes in laws affect what you can do or how you can do it?
  • Environmental: What’s the state of your immediate environment, or even the natural world around you? Is it stable, or under threat?

How might any of these factors affect you, your organisation or your project? Perhaps there are new sources of funding available, or new laws that mean you need to change the way you do things. How can you be more sustainable? Are these factors an opportunity or a threat?

When you have filled out all four sectors, use your SWOT analysis to think about possible future strategy. How can strengths be used, weaknesses stopped, opportunities exploited or threats defended against?

Pair up sectors to generate more ideas: how might you use your strengths to meet opportunities? How might threats from outside interact with your weaknesses, and what could you do about that?

Thinking about the actions you can take helps you turn your SWOT analysis into the start of a strategic plan.

Give feedback:

Think of a problem or situation you have in your life.

  • Could you use SWOT analysis to help you solve it?
  • How might thinking about strengths, weaknesses opportunities or threats help you understand it better?

Share your reasons why in the Comments and tell other learners what you think your own strengths might be. If you’re feeling really brave, tell us your weaknesses too.

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This article is from the free online course:

Decision Making: How to Choose the Right Problem to Solve

University of Leeds