Conduct a SWOT analysis before your cultural resource management fieldwork

Sometimes, when I think back on my career in cultural resource management, I wonder if I even made any money for the companies I worked for in the beginning.

I can recall an especially disastrous project where I ended up driving about 220 miles on an icy Interstate 90, risking my life and my boss’ car as I crawled over Snoqualmie Pass from Seattle to Ritzville, Washington just so I could dig a single shovel probe. It was about 20 degrees outside that day—even colder in Ellensburg. I left Seattle around 5:30 A.M. in order to beat a snow storm that was threatening to close Snoqualmie. I made it just in time only to traverse black ice from Ellensburg to Moses Lake. When I got to the project area just outside of Ritzburg, the upper 20 centimeters of dirt was frozen. I had to use a breaker bar to smash through the permafrost. From there, I completed the probe down to 120 centimeters below ground surface. There was nothing in the hole. I finished my notes, took some photos, hopped in the car, and rampaged back to Seattle.

The worst thing was, I’d already done the rest of the fieldwork about 2 weeks earlier. Why did I have to bill a 12-hour day in order to go all the way back to the project area and dig another probe? Because I’d dug one of the previous probes in the wrong location. Why did I dig a probe in the wrong place? I was doing cultural resources work for the Washington DOT before they installed some roadside light poles (called luminaires) at several intersections in rural Adams County, Washington. The WDOT project leader provided me with a “technical drawing” of where the poles were going to be installed. These super-accurate drawings were literally hand-drawn, chicken-scratch maps with red marker blobs scrawled in the locations where the luminaires were to be installed. Turns out one of the marker blobs was on the wrong corner at one of the intersections. This meant I’d dug a probe in the wrong location. It also meant that I had to fix the problem.

Thinking back on this predicament, I realize several ways it could have been prevented. But all of the preventative measures I can think of begin with a simple exercise—an assessment of what could have gone wrong (or right) with the project. Professional project managers call this a SWOT Analysis (SWOT is an anachronism for Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threat).

Conducting a quick and dirty SWOT analysis

While there is an endless stream of articles, recommendations, blog posts, and YouTube videos telling you specific instructions on how to conduct a SWOT analysis. But, they all boil down to a single excellent recommendation: take a few minutes to think of what could go wrong with your project.

For those of us working in historic preservation and cultural resource management, there are myriad ways projects can go wrong. Unfortunately, we primarily conduct SWOT-like analyses when writing a proposal or scope of work. It is absolutely essential for the proposal effort because that’s when we’re trying to figure out how much the project will cost, how long it will take, and how many man-hours will be required. But, the SWOT can be done at any point in a project’s lifespan. You can do this before you enter the field or do a quickie SWOT in the first few days when you’ve seen what the project looks like and had a day or so to get an idea of how the project has been going so far. This will also help you guesstimate where it is likely to go based on what you’ve already done and the direction things are heading.

Of course, you could get really deep in the weeds with this type of analysis. It has become a mainstay of the project management field, which is pretty much dedicated to folks that have jobs that consist of about 60 percent meetings and 35 percent emails. I think for most cultural resource field directors, crew chiefs, and field techs, a SWOT is more about stepping back and thinking about the upcoming project before diving headlong into something we might regret. Principal investigators can also benefit because it can give you an idea of how an existing project may end up, given the people that will actually conduct the fieldwork and complete the write-up. It will also give you a chance to think about your proposal, project bid, or scope of work before you decide to go for it.

Most references suggest using a piece of paper to write down the things identified during your SWOT. I usually don’t have the extra 10-20 minutes to formally conduct a SWOT before entering the field or creating a scope of work, so I typically just do the analysis in my head while driving to work or heading home in the days leading up to a project or proposal. If I identify anything that I need to remember, I just make a note of it in my phone.

Here are some example questions you can use on a quick and dirty CRM SWOT analysis:

Strengths—What do you and your co-workers bring to this project that will help it succeed (experience, knowledge, skills, ect.)? Are there any landscape or weather characteristics that will make your job easier? Do you already have a writing template that will help you produce a final product more quickly? Is your overhead lower than your competitors? Or, are your company-wide operating systems so efficient that you have an advantage in the marketplace?

Weaknesses—Do you have little experience in this particular area? Is your crew inexperienced? Is a certain individual going to be trouble in the field? Has this project been lowballed– shrinking your budget to the breaking point? Will there be terrain obstacles or private property that may hamper your field effort?

Opportunities—Does this project give particular individuals an opportunity to shine? Do you have a chance to fill a data gap in local culture histories? Is this an opportunity to do something nobody else has ever done before? Will this project help your career or help your company make money?

Threats—Is the site threatened (i.e. is erosion or eminent construction going to wipe it out before it’s properly recorded)? Is the site/historic property in a location slated for urban renewal/reinvestment? Has a prior programmatic agreement reduced government interest in preserving this site? Is there a public mentality of “development and ‘jobs’ über alles” that reduces their interest in historic preservation?

Again, this doesn’t have to be done in depth if you’re simply going out in the field for a project that has already been created. You just need to take a few minutes to think about what may go right and/or wrong regarding this particular project. A quality SWOT should be conducted during the pre-field and project proposal period. It’s kinda too late for that by the time you’ve already been assigned to the project.

If I’d taken the time to do a quick and dirty SWOT before heading out to the field near Ritzville, I might have realized that it may have not been a good idea to trust a hand-drawn sketch map of the project area. I should have thought twice about this document’s accuracy and realized that using that crappy map might backfire. This would have saved me lots of time and budget. Now I know better.

If you have any questions or comments, or would like to know more about the SWOT matrix I use for cultural resource management archaeology projects, write a comment below or send me an email.


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