Any time I talk to garden center employees, I find them bubbling with ideas and thoughts about their businesses. When I ask, I learn that some of these were expressed to their management, but many are left unsaid. People are often afraid that their ideas “aren’t good enough” or won’t be taken seriously. Others are worried that if they propose something and it’s not successful in the end, they’ll end up looking bad. A few people have said to me, “If I speak up, I’ll be in charge of it ... so I keep quiet.”
A good tool for brainstorming that allows all employees’ ideas and thoughts to come forward in a non-threatening way is a SWOT analysis. This is a business analysis tool credited to Albert Humphrey during his time at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s and ‘70s. When done well, it’s a great way to brainstorm with your staff and get reinvigorated as a company.
SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It’s commonly drawn up on paper divided into four blocks. A SWOT analysis is typically done both as a group and by asking employees to write their thoughts down anonymously. The group does some out-loud brainstorming, but the anonymous thoughts on paper are collected so that management can see those ideas and opinions that employees might hesitate to say out loud.
When working with a group of employees, you would prepare sheets with four squares labeled S, W, O and T. Each staff member is given a sheet and asked to fill in each square with their thoughts on your company’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. At the start of this exercise, it’s good to give some prompts to stimulate your staff’s thinking. A few pump-priming questions are below.
- What does our company do really well?
- How are we already well-positioned in our community?
- What compliments do you frequently hear from customers?
- Are there aspects of our displays, selection or stock we excel at?
- Where and how does our customer service shine?
- What do we offer that isn’t available from our competitors?
- What are the areas you see that we could jump on to grow?
- How has the business changed in our favor?
- Which new technologies could help us reach and retain customers?
- What plants, products or events would draw in the crowds?
- Which trends have you heard of that we can pursue?
- What areas do you see where we need to make improvements?
- How do we disappoint our customers?
- Do you see advantageous openings that we’re not pursuing?
- Where do we lack resources?
- What products do people ask for that we don’t carry?
- Are there competitors that threaten our business, and how do they do so?
- Where are we failing to keep up?
- How have you seen customers be disappointed in the past?
- Are there areas where we are stuck in the past, or have habits that don’t work?
After those sheets are collected, the exercise leader draws the same four boxes on a whiteboard and asks people who are willing to share a few of their responses. Once several ideas are listed under each category, it’s time to ask your staff to connect the dots from square to square. Which of the strengths that they listed might be amplified in ways that can address the weaknesses or threats? Which of the weaknesses might be overcome with a targeted team effort? How might those opportunities the staff sees counter the threats they’ve identified?
Ideas for building on strengths, jumping on opportunities, improving weaknesses and countering threats can be written in a new list that’s titled “Possible Action Items.” Some groups stop here and allow time for the management to review what came forward in the meeting as well as what was written but not shared verbally. Others ask their group to vote for what they see as the top three action items that they should focus on in the near future.
SWOT is a way to acknowledge that every one of your employees has thoughts and experiences that can help the business prosper. To make the exercise as successful as possible, try it showing respect for every single idea and opinion that’s offered, do it on a day or evening when the store is closed, include everyone and serve refreshments at the end.
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