For many Americans, Christmas week 2022 will forever be remembered as the year where hundreds of thousands of holiday travelers were stranded by the meltdown at Southwest Airlines. As strategic planners and nonprofit consultants, here at Funding for Good we naturally asked:
Could the meltdown at Southwest have been prevented? And, if so, how?
One answer lies in two incredibly useful, albeit different, tools: SWOT analysis and strategic planning.
SWOT Analysis vs Strategic Planning
First, let’s consider what each tool does:
- A SWOT analysis is a business tool to assess an organization’s internal operating capacity by detailing current Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
- A strategic planning process is designed to guide an organization’s leadership to create, document, and commit to a shared vision for the future. This results in a strategic plan which includes strategies, goals, objectives, and activities that will help the organization achieve its vision.
A SWOT analysis or similar assessment (such as an environmental scan or PESTLE analysis) is often part of the first stage of a strategic planning process. A SWOT analysis pushes leaders to take a hard look at the current state of their organization, including what’s working, what isn’t, and what may break sooner rather than later. This sets the groundwork for looking ahead to creating an ambitious yet actionable vision for the future.
To broaden the analysis, a consultant conducting a SWOT may also include findings from stakeholder interviews and surveys—for example gathering input from staff, board, volunteers, and clients.
Case Study: Southwest Airlines
As the Southwest meltdown progressed over the 2022 holidays, reporters and travelers began to ask why. How could a major airline descend so quickly into utter chaos?
Soon enough, however, a clear story emerged. According to CNN:
Ask Southwest Airlines employees about their company’s technology, and one word keeps coming up: “antiquated.”
The New York Times further explains that:
It’s been an open secret within Southwest for some time, and a shameful one, that the company desperately needed to modernize its scheduling systems. Software shortcomings contributed to previous, smaller-scale meltdowns, and Southwest unions had repeatedly warned about the software.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say, “Wow, Southwest really should have upgraded that software.” But retrospect doesn’t help stranded passengers. And it doesn’t help a company rebuild its reputation.
Could a SWOT Analysis and Strategic Planning Have Helped Southwest?
A SWOT analysis is designed to detect exactly the kinds of issues Southwest faced. Aging software infrastructure fits perfectly under both “Weaknesses” and “Threats.” For example:
- Current scheduling software is outdated and requires extensive manual entry when there are schedule disruptions
- A major schedule disruption caused by external factors, such as a massive storm disrupting travel in multiple cities, could strain scheduling software to the breaking point
With these challenges identified, leaders could then create a strategic plan that included modernizing and stress testing the scheduling software.
That’s the way the strategic planning process is supposed to work. But a SWOT analysis and strategic plan gathering dust on a shelf won’t do a company any good.
A SWOT Analysis and Strategic Plan Only Work if You Use Them
Infrastructure and operations are an area Funding for Good frequently sees come up as a priority in organization’s strategic plans. And there’s good reason for that. It’s often the last place where groups invest.
The truth is, investing in infrastructure is expensive. It’s not flashy. It doesn’t raise shareholder prices or inspire nonprofit donors. But infrastructure is what keeps organizations running. It’s what enables businesses and nonprofits to make an impact and achieve success.
So, there’s a lesson we can all take from Southwest and start applying in our organizations today. Don’t just understand the weaknesses and threats for your organization, act to address them.