What happens when a big gush of wind blows your strategic planning process right out the window? Should you run out and try to grab it? Should you pray the air currents will change and it will rush back into the room? Or should you let it go and start over with a fresh process?

Stalled strategic planning gets you nowhere fast.

This issue's dilemma asks about your deepest secrets—about what goes on in those planning sessions. We're looking to you as the experts on how to make strategic planning more productive. What tips can you give to improve the strategic planning process and its results?

Thanks go to all of you who have been working with the bare minimum and keep accomplishing amazing things. Read below to see your peers' best advice about putting some meat on your bare-bones staff.

If your office isn't even near a window, or if you don't think thin is in, write to us and ask our SWOT Team about your own dilemma. Tapping into our collective experience, strength and hope really works. You could win a copy of our book, A Marketer's Guide to e-Newsletter Publishing.

SWOT Team, unite! Here's how you can make a difference:

• Give advice about this issue's dilemma.

• Read your peers' responses to the previous dilemma (below).

• Submit your own dilemma.

This Issue's Dilemma

Swot Category: Internal Weakness

Help! Our strategic planning process has gone out the window.

My company has a staff of 35 people with eight programs under three areas of service. For almost three years, we have been meeting to discuss strategic planning with very little progress. As the communications director, I have made suggestions; but for the most part, have sat back while other, more important people (senior ranking), have led the meetings and gotten us nowhere. I recently decided that I cannot, in good ethics, waste my time in these meetings.

When the head of the strategic planning committee decided our next goal was to define the messages for our target markets, I worked with a team of people on what I felt was the first step: defining what the target audiences want to hear, then writing/crafting relative messages. I thought we should define our goals and look at ways to market these messages in tune with our mission and vision. However, no one can stay focused in any of these meetings. They are not concise with their messages and get furious when I try to consolidate them.

What do your readers suggest? I feel like our process is out the window, and we continue to complete random miscellaneous acts without direction. I am very frustrated by the whole process.

—Anonymous, Communications Director

Previous Dilemma

Swot Category: Internal Weakness

Any tips on marketing with a bare-bones staff?

I know a lot of you are the same position, and so I'm crossing my fingers that you can give me some coping advice. Our marketing team consists of three people: one focused mainly on public relations, one director, and me—the project manager. I'm supposed to do all and be all, but I'm having a hard time prioritizing things and meeting deadlines.

Currently, I develop marketing campaigns for individual business units, oversee market research, interface with the sales staff, coordinate details for many projects, including working with outside vendors, and help the director get all of my stuff approved by the executive team.

Without working 70 hours a week (because I have a life, too), how can I be more effective and better prioritize my time?

—Serena, Project Manager

Summary of Advice Received

Serena, the advice we received from your peers will certainly add some meat to your bare-bones staff. You have some very organized and disciplined peers who are making due with limited resources. It seems that “thinking thin” doesn't have to be the case, as seen in the excellent advice many of the SWOT Team members provided.

The majority of the advice falls into these five categories:

1. Set your priorities.

2. Set a plan and stay organized around it.

3. Track each project's progress.

4. Develop an internship program.

5. Rely on external resources.

1. Set your priorities

Most of the advice we received involves setting your priorities. Using this organization technique will prevent you from losing certain projects in the shuffle, or overlooking key projects. If you decide something goes at the bottom of the priority list, at least you know where it stands for the time being. But don't think of this as a one-time solution. You must frequently return to your priority list and reprioritize.

One of the best things about prioritization is that if you make this clear to everyone, often you can prevent having additional work handed to your team. When your coworkers see the full extent of what your team is already tackling, they can be dissuaded from giving additional projects to you and, instead, look to other resources.

Kimberley Brown, Marketing Manager for Staco Energy Products Co., suggests a valuable way to let others know your priorities:

Wow! You have three people in your department? I *am* my department. Talk about do all and be all. Throughout my career, I have worked with small staffs, and for the most part, small budgets. The best advice I can give would be to carefully prioritize your projects and stick to it. No one will remember if you made 10 marketing phone calls or ordered supplies, but they will remember if you missed a deadline for an ad or press release, or couldn't stay on schedule for a large project.

Do the things that will make a difference in your organization. If you can make the phone ring, and bring in customers, eventually you may have a larger staff. I try to focus only on those activities that show a direct relationship to sales for my company. One thing I do to help people realize my priorities is write all my major projects and to-dos on a white board in my office. When someone comes in with a project that will only take a couple of hours (or days, or even minutes), I refer to the board and ask them which project(s) I should take off the board, or which ones their project should override. Usually, unless it really is a top priority, they will find another, faster way to do it than dump it on me. In the end, if you are a marketer, then marketing is what you should focus on. That is what your bosses will remember and evaluate you on.

Christopher Foster, Marketing Manager at Modern Postcard, adds:

The best thing to do is ruthlessly prioritize. I manage about eight people, and even though I have a very good, competent staff, there is a myriad of work that is always on the horizon. I prioritize and plan the work of my crew in two-to-four week chunks, and start at the high-priority long-term stuff, and move down to low priority day-to-day stuff. Also, I need to leave room for firefighting with Service and Sales, which can happen as we roll out programs. The director should establish the marketing visibility for six to nine months, but he/she can help manage the crew by blocking out two-week cycles of work. Breaking it down like that gives the crew room to manage their own day, with expected deliverables to meet.

In addition to prioritization, David Daniels, Managing Director for Incendo Marketing, suggests directly correlating your priorities to the bottom line:

Serena, my sage advice is to focus on the projects and activities that will have the most impact on revenue. Get agreement and commitment from the executive team and use that as a backdrop to prioritize projects. Avoid trying to please everyone, because if you do, you risk not pleasing anyone. Rethink everything in light of the new priorities and don't over-commit your limited resources. Put ROI measurements in place to track the effectiveness of every marketing project to show how your efforts are contributing to the bottom line.

An anonymous team member recommends aligning priorities with business goals:

This sounds so familiar! Here's how I try to deal with it... hope this helps:

1. Make sure you completely understand and are aligned with business goals and priorities.

2. Evaluate all proposed projects against those goals and priorities.

3. Refuse to do anything not aligned.

4. Prioritize the rest.

5. Accept only the top priorities.

I've come to the conclusion that when management doesn't staff a division, it's because they're trying to control the type of work being done. You can support them by acting as a funnel to align the work. And if they complain? Just tell 'em you need more resources.

2. Set a plan and stay organized around it

This category holds the second-largest dose of wisdom. Planning goes hand in hand with prioritization. In addition to aligning your priorities with business goals, many of you suggested putting together a plan and then staying organized around this plan.

Elaine Fogel, Director of Communications, Sales & Marketing for Ontario March of Dimes, gives this valuable advice about planning:

Sounds like your organization needs to focus. With limited resources, your existing staff will burn out and/or get frustrated because expectations are unrealistic. People don't typically stay long in these situations. Here are a couple of suggestions: Talk to your director about developing a one-year tactical marketing plan for each fiscal year. If senior staff buy into the plan, then your project list can be more manageable. New projects or new initiatives will need delaying until the next year's plans, or the organization needs to bring in additional resources.

Mike Turner, Director of Marketing for Elliott Aviation, reminds us to savor the small victories once you've developed a plan:

Yes, I can relate. My team is basically me. Your team of three is: me, myself and I. Thankfully, I have developed a fantastic team of independent writers, designers and PR folks. The only way I've been able to cope is to stay very organized, keep project lists, and be extremely effective and efficient with my time. I've learned when my best creative and writing times are and allocate my project focus on those times when creative thought is required and the more mundane tasks to those times when I'm not at my peak. Planning my work and then working the plan helps, too. Savor the small victories; they'll keep you going.

James McRoy, CEO of eBusiness Resource, explains what being a project manager means:

I think the key here is in the job description—project MANAGER. It seems that the lady has taken on everybody's monkeys as a matter of course. The director should take care of the executive approvals without the project manager's “help.” Market research should be the responsibility of the market researcher who should then report to the project manager. Sales staff interface? Selling is a separate function from marketing and the domain of the sales manager. I think that if you follow your job brief a little more closely, you will find that time prioritization will follow as a matter of course.

David Colwell, Web Marketing Specialist for 4th Mind, uses the “Big Rocks First” method of planning:

I use the Big Rocks First method. Plan for the week, and pick three... and only three of what you consider to be the most valuable things you can do to improve your current position in your market/client/potential client view. Everything else can slide, but these three act as your compass and HAVE to be done unless something bigger falls directly into your lap. If you have to take more than 15 minutes to evaluate a new opportunity mid-week, it's not supposed to go into this week! Delegate someone to evaluate it and create a summary for you to go over in next week's planning.

Discuss, evaluate and commit to the top three priorities for the week with your team (ideally on Monday morning); then plan out the top three things you can do each day to make sure you move these items forward as quickly and with as much quality as appropriate. Clearly communicate those three main goals for the week and the three tasks per day that will bring your goals to reality. Make sure everyone understands that if there's ANYTHING still to do on these items, all other stuff is put on hold. I've found that this planning helps my small teams actually complete our week feeling like we've accomplished something, and we can see (and show) real progress in very particular areas that matter. If the other stuff falls to the wayside and never gets done, I can easily accept and justify it because the important stuff got done...and it might not have, if we tried to do it all!

At the end of each week, take the time to review and recognize your progress and or shortfalls. If you see good progress, make sure to share it with others in the company. That way, when they come to you with an idea, you are in a position to say, “I like your idea, and I appreciate you bringing it to me. I will put it on our list of ideas to evaluate, after we've completed the main three items we're working on this week.”

An anonymous SWOT Team member has another great idea, which could be used for planning or directing the staff's focus on a specific project:

We get the whole team to work away from the office for one week, with pure focus on a project. This allows for productivity without interference. We do not get back into the office until the project is finalized. We also use someone's house for a meeting location, so as to keep within our budget.

3. Track each project's progress

Mark Mattingly, Marketing Manger at Bollin Label Systems, recommends the following tools for tracking each project's progress:

1. Use a project tracking or calendar program to keep track of daily time frames.

2. Keep your boss happy by giving him access to this list, or print it for him.

Then when someone requests a rush project that you just can't squeeze in, you can honestly say, “If Jack, my boss, wants to approve a schedule change, then I'd be glad to help; but, right now, I have to finish what I'm working on for him first.”

4. Develop an internship program

In addition to planning and tracking, there are other ways to bulk up your workforce.

Elaine Fogel, Director of Communications, Sales & Marketing for Ontario March of Dimes, gives the following creative suggestions:

Call a nearby college or university to see about marketing internships. Students often require intern positions for periods of up to two months in some communications/marketing-related programs. There may also be a long-term internship program operating in your location that can provide a fresh college graduate for periods of six months to one year. They are eager to learn and offer another pair of hands. In addition, university MBA marketing students often look for viable projects for student group assignments. Your market research may be the perfect thing to farm out. You mentor the group, and they do the legwork, while gaining valuable experience.

Kimberley Brown, Marketing Manager for Staco Energy Products Co., adds these tips for finding additional support:

Sometimes, if I have a project that is suited for it, I can get clerical help for doing some of the manual labor like stuffing envelopes. You can also find free or very cheap labor at the high school and college level, through co-op programs and internships. This gives younger people an idea of what marketing really entails, and valuable experience in the marketplace.

5. Rely on external resources

Even if you prioritize, plan and track your projects' progress, your bare-bones staff may not be enough. Several respondents recommended turning to outside resources for help.

Michelle Dyer in Business Development for Onbrand recommends using an agency:

This is probably not a very popular suggestion, but if you have an established and good working relationship with an external agency you could:

  • Either incentivize them to work harder on your behalf by really engaging them in the planning process and scoping out and delivering the work for you

  • Or find a partner that will do the above

The key is to find an agency you can trust to deliver on-time, on-budget and on-quality, but also one that really understands the pressures you are under as an individual as well as a business. The agency can become an almost virtual marketing team for clients, and not only deliver much more strategically focused tactical projects, but enable you to get on with your roles (rather than firefighting). Don't treat the agency as a supplier, however. They will be the gold-dust that helps you look good and enable a better work/life balance.

An anonymous marketing manager suggests hiring freelancers, only after making sure your team's voice is heard, and being realistic about your team's workload and capabilities, even with support.

I am in the same position. First, make your voice heard—not that you cannot get it done, but rather a reasonable expectation of when projects will be completed. Then follow up frequently with progress reports. Second, never ever over-promise. If you cannot get a project completed in an unrealistic time frame with no budget, do not say you can! This is a hard one because you want to please—but sometimes it is better to be honest. Third, find reasonable freelance workers who could alleviate the time crunch on projects. Figure out what the total number of hours on the project will be, and how having them will help get the project completed faster. This will get the sales people selling product faster, therefore justifying the freelancers. GOOD LUCK!! Hopefully the economy will turn and marketing will hire you more support!

Your suppliers and customers can also help flesh out your marketing department. Robert Sunstrum, President of Manage My Home Inc., gives this advice:

Tap into external resources that can help you. This can range from suppliers to your customers. Create a marketing advisory group and allow these resources to help you do a SWOT analysis. Most will become so engaged with the group's focus that they will find ways to help you with the work.

Way to Work Together SWOT Team!

We did our best to provide a thorough overview of your thoughtful responses to this timely topic. Thanks for your participation, and if you would like the complete text of all responses for your own analysis, please click here.

Sign up for free to read the full article. Enter your email address to keep reading ...


Hank Stroll (Hank@InternetVIZ.com) is publisher at InternetVIZ, a custom publisher of 24 B2B e-newsletters reaching 490,000 business executives.

Tamara is a writer at InternetVIZ and is available for freelance work.