In uncertain times like these, veterinary practices, like other businesses, look for ways to regain control of their operations.
Many practice leaders turn to strategic planning, a process that is designed to help business owners better understand their current situation, set goals for where they want to go, make realistic plans to get there, and regain control.
Strategic planning is an effective process that can jumpstart a stalled practice, turn around a failing one, and help keep a healthy practice strong, but it is only as good as its parts. Poor use of the strategic planning process can waste time and result in a poor outcome.
In my 9 years as a practice consultant, one of the common strategic planning steps that I’ve seen go wrong is the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis. This article suggests methods to ensure that the SWOT analysis is used properly to educate team members about the practice, create focus and alignment for action, and stimulate strategic, creative solutions to achieve practice goals.
What is SWOT Analysis?
SWOT analysis (see Table 1) is a tool for sorting and analyzing information to help practice owners and team members understand their current situation inside and out. It is a way of collecting and organizing information and data into helpful categories that the team can use to set priorities, develop strategies, and make informed decisions for the health of the practice.
Table 1. SWOT Analysis
Strengths and weaknesses are considered internal characteristics of a business over which you have control, such as the services you offer or client communications. Opportunities and threats are external characteristics that affect the practice, but over which you have little control, such as new competition or zoning restrictions on signs.
Using SWOT Analysis
Remember to inform your team that the practice is participating in strategic planning and explain what you hope to accomplish. This is especially important if the leadership team is meeting off site. If the other team members don’t know what is going on, they will speculate and morale will suffer.
In most cases, strategic planning can be accomplished in 1 or 2 days off site, because the participants will have fewer interruptions and can give it their full attention, but that much time away from the practice will not go unnoticed and team members need to know what is going on.
When employing SWOT analysis, follow these steps:
1. Have the team brainstorm about the practice and its external environment. External environment opportunities and threats are developments outside the practice, such as a mandated increase in the minimum wage, a new dog park opening in the area, a nearby practice extending its hours, and more. Practices do not operate in a vacuum and collecting data for the SWOT analysis gives everyone a chance to assess these developments and their effect on the practice.
While it is best to include all team members, this may not be practical in very large practices. In that case, representatives from each department should participate. In my experience, the best size for a brainstorming group is 12 to 15 people, which ensures representation from all departments but is still manageable for accomplishing the work.
2. Ask participants to write individual bits of data on sticky notes. Each sticky note should capture something about the practice itself or its external environment. (See samples of brainstorming data in step 3.) Practice owners and managers often skip this brainstorming step and try to come up with data all by themselves. Skipping team involvement, however, short-circuits buy-in and practice leaders miss out on insights and ideas that they would never see themselves.
3. Once the brainstorming step is completed and all of the individual data points are captured on sticky notes, the team is ready for the SWOT analysis. The practice team’s brainstorming might generate dozens of sticky notes with bits of information, such as:
- Good reputation
- Friendly staff
- Outside prescription services
- Humane society adoptions
- More dog than cat patients
- Training issues
- Limited parking
- Decreased client volume
- Great location
- Soft economy
- Good equipment
- Good doctors
- Flat profits
- Fewer new clients
- Attractive website
- Social media
- Community involvement
- Good signage
- New pet laws
The team then sorts through the data and uses the 4 SWOT categories to make sense of them, uncovering relationships between the different pieces of data that might otherwise get overlooked.
At this point, practice teams commonly make the mistake of thinking that the SWOT exercise is about sorting the bits of data into the right categories. The real value of the SWOT analysis, however, is teambuilding and communication. Each sticky note should be read out loud and team members should discuss what the words mean. Talking about each bit of data helps everyone to learn about the practice and decide whether to treat that piece as a strength, weakness, opportunity, or threat.
For instance, some team members might see “attractive website” as a practice strength because it is a positive and you have control over it. Others might see it as a weakness because even though it looks good and you have control over it, the website does not rank high in search engine optimization (SEO). The discussion of the meaning of “attractive website” deepens everyone’s understanding of the issue and its importance. It is not unusual for practice teams, based on these discussions, to add more sticky notes with data points to the ones they already have generated. In this case, they might add a new sticky note for “poor SEO” so that they can use it in their analysis along with “attractive website.” Without these discussions, people may have very different ideas about each data point and its meaning.
4. As each data point is discussed, the team members should also agree on how to categorize the data—do they see it as a strength, weakness, opportunity, or threat? Once they’ve decided, they stick the note to a flip chart page that has been divided into the 4 SWOT categories. Once the SWOT discussion and sorting are completed, the team members should be able to see how strengths could offset threats and capture opportunities, and how weaknesses can be improved to help the practice achieve its goals.
The SWOT discussion and sorting are intended to stimulate new thinking and help team members more clearly see the areas with the greatest potential and/or risk so that they can prioritize these areas to ensure the healthy future of the practice.
Incorporating SWOT Analysis in Strategic Planning
Points determined in a SWOT analysis are used later in the strategic planning process to generate strategies and action plans.
Let’s assume that the practice team sees “fewer new clients” and “decreased client volume” as a key challenge. They might decide to leverage the strength of their “attractive website” by improving its “poor SEO,” a weakness, to attract new clients.
The thoughtful discussion and sorting of each data point during the SWOT analysis help educate team members about the practice and how it works. This process helps prepare them to prioritize goals and take action. They should also be able to look more creatively at solutions as they match off strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to create a strategies and actions plan.
The Bottom Line
Strategic planning is a multistep process to create a business plan for the practice. Using the SWOT analysis correctly is critical to the success of the plan. Practice leaders who recognize the wisdom of including their team members in the strategic planning process and who use SWOT analysis correctly will reap the rewards of team building and focus. Team members will have a richer understanding of how the practice works and will feel they are on the same page and focused on the same goals.
This process could be handled internally if the veterinary team works well together and has no major interpersonal difficulties. If lack of communication or conflict exist, it is advisable to hire a professional consultant or coach to guide the team through this process with an eye toward teamwork development and improvement.
Strategic Planning Online Resources
- The Strategic Planning Process: quickmba.com/strategy/strategic-planning
- Developing a Strategic Plan: planware.org/strategicplan.htm/strategicplanner.htm
- Strategic Planning: karyngavzer.com/practicesolutions.html