Strategic planning can sound and be overwhelming and sometimes can feel like an exercise in futility as most strategic plans are never referred to again after presentation. Strategic plans can be created at varying levels of complexity, and unless you are required to create a full-blown strategic plan that includes an executive summary, situation summary and implementation plan, I suggest addressing your 2011 strategic plan in a more simplistic manner.

Start with SWOT Analysis
Either independently or with your leadership team, identify your team's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Look to your customer feedback, personnel performance reviews (including your own), corporate goals and department mission and vision statements to provide content for your SWOT grid.

Categorize Improvement Opportunities
Your weaknesses, opportunities and threats combined are your 2011 improvement opportunities. In order to tie each of your goals back to your department's mission and vision statements, categorize your improvement opportunities to ensure they support your department's charter and thus are appropriate areas of focus. Creative department goals and objectives generally fall into one of these five categories:

  • Quality
  • Client Service/Partnership
  • Talent Development
  • Innovation
  • Brand/Visual Identity

If one or more of your improvement opportunities falls outside of these categories, determine whether additional categories are necessary or if a particular opportunity is out of scope.

Prioritize Improvement Opportunities: Importance
Again, either independently or with your leadership team (I preferred to work through this with my senior managers, as it provided additional perspective and created buy-in and momentum for our annual objectives), prioritize the improvement opportunities using a simple 2x2 matrix to measure relative impact and effort level required to create positive change.

It works nicely to have each leadership team member independently rank each improvement opportunity in advance of a group meeting at which the team reviews a matrix depicting the average of everyone's independent rankings. From there you can lead a discussion about department priorities from your perspective, and the team can discuss whether changes to the matrix are needed to accurately reflect the department's most important goals. Often, it's necessary to move items from high impact to low impact, but it's usually only possible to make these decisions when comparing one improvement opportunity against another. You'll need to remind your team that not everything will have a high impact--at least when compared to other activities--and this, of course, doesn't mean it's not important, just that it's not as critical to your future success as other activities. Also, your team can't address every identified opportunity. This is the time to isolate the most impactful changes your team can make in 2011.

Prioritize Improvement Opportunities: Timing
Improvement opportunities that require low effort, but will have a high impact should be addressed first. These are your low hanging fruit opportunities and should be knocked out first so you can create change quickly.

Opportunities requiring high effort, but will have high impact should be your team's second priority. Low effort, low impact opportunities should be addressed only if your team has time. And those opportunities in the high effort, low impact quadrant should be shelved and potentially never addressed unless their importance increases following changes in your business environment (e.g., customer feedback, personnel performance reviews, corporate goals and department mission and vision statements). [See 2x2 matrix for a visual representation of this timing prioritization]

Build Action Plans
For each improvement opportunity (which you may now want to call "goal"), assign an owner--you may want to ask if anyone has extreme passion around any of the improvement opportunities or you may want to assign an owner based on personal strengths or development areas. Ideally these owners are on your leadership team (including you), as these team members likely have lower billing expectations than your individual contributors. Though you may wish to assign some of the low effort opportunities to your high-potential staff in order to provide them with an experience that will grow their skills and value to the organization.

Each owner needs to build an action plan for each of his/her assigned improvement opportunities that you will need to approve. The action plan does not need to be complex, but should include the following elements:

  • Goal (statement regarding improvement opportunity, e.g., "decrease errors identified at vendor stage")
  • Tactics (activities that will be undertaken to affect goal)
  • Success Metrics (how will we know we have impacted change)
    • Current status (e.g., 10% of projects have printer errors)
    • Goal status (e.g., reduce number of projects with printer errors to less than 5%)
    • Timeline (target date for goal achievement)

When you review each action plan, verify that they are SMART:


  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Results-Oriented
  • Time-Based

Communicate Goals
As we mentioned in a previous blog, a lack of progress against goals or spinning of the wheels is more demotivating than any other negative factor for a knowledge worker[1]. Thus, it's important to demonstrate to your team that you are invested in progress and to update the team on progress throughout the year. Once your leadership team has gone through the above planning process, hold a department meeting to share the 2011 plan.


I recommend starting the department meeting by explaining the process through which the leadership team identified and prioritized the annual goals. Then share those goals using a simple pyramid or other visual mechanism that ties your department mission and objectives to your 2011 goals. Only share goals that you have greenlighted as achievable 2011 initiatives--you don't want to disappoint your team by sharing more goals than will be addressed. Then schedule quarterly meetings to update the team on progress against the initiatives. If your priorities change across the course of the year, these meetings provide the platform to share those changes with your team and explain the impetus behind those changes.

Don't forget to include your stakeholders in your communication plan. Your clients are interested in how their feedback and business plans feed into your 2011 planning and may also find comfort and excitement in learning how you plan to improve and expand services in the coming year. It's best to share your plan in person, as questions are likely and this is an opportunity to deepen the department's relationships with its stakeholders. Depending on the number of clients/accounts your team serves, you may want to limit communication to your key stakeholders or delegate/share communication responsibilities across your leadership team.

Some creative leaders are required to submit a strategic plan, others' plans are encompassed in the greater Marketing plan and others have no requirement at all. Regardless of whether you are required to create a strategic plan, it's important to have one. Find a strategic planning method that works for you and your organization; and increase the likelihood of success against that plan by regularly communicating about it, displaying your pyramid/visual communication and creating accountability in your personal performance goals, the goals of your leadership team and your individual contributors' goals as relevant.

[1] Amabile , Teresa M. and Kramer, Steven J., "The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2010--1: What Really Motivates Workers," Harvard Business Review, January 2010.