Let's take a look at this importance-urgency matrix from Dr. Steven Covey. He talks about the need to prioritize your activities in order to manage your time effectively. You can actually keep a log of your activities throughout the day and categorize them in terms of how urgent and important they are, and you may be surprised at where you spend most of your time. People often claim they don't have time to do certain important items like planning and building important relationships, because they are always just putting out fires. It's the important/urgent items that demand our attention immediately. In between all the fires, we have all sorts of other small activities that fill in the rest of our time, but these are often unimportant items that are either forced on us by others or personal preferences and obsessions.
The trick is to prioritize properly. By focusing attention on the important but not urgent items, such as strategic planning and building key relationships in accordance with your strategy, the fires will actually put themselves out. If you have a good relationship with a customer, they'll understand when one order doesn't come through right, so while you need to fix it, it's not really as much of a fire as if you had to be worried about losing the account altogether. On the other hand, you might have a customer that doesn't fit your target demographic, who causes problems, and who you don't make much money on anyway. If you can make the strategic decision to drop that customer on whose fires you're wasting a lot of time and energy, you may come out ahead, because you can focus that attention on opportunities that will provide a better return on investment. In order to have the time to focus on strategic activities, you have to eliminate the unimportant activities that don't serve a greater purpose. Eliminate or shorten some meetings; set a schedule to check email once every few hours instead of letting it distract you as it comes in; stop creating reports that you think others need but they don't actually even look at. For an IT department, focusing on strategic aspects of the system infrastructure will help ensure projects are rolled out in a way that makes sense to support the company and possibly even utilize technology to drive new business opportunities.
The SWOT Analysis is an example of a Quadrant II activity that helps you understand where you should be focusing your time in order to be the most effective. A SWOT Analysis doesn't need to be overly structured or complicated. Spending a lot of time building a pretty SWOT template and training everyone on its use would be a good example of an unimportant activity. Put it out there and let it happen, whether you use a 2x2 matrix, bulleted lists, or more of a free-form mind map. The strengths and weaknesses are inward facing. They refer to inherent qualities of the company or department and what they're currently doing. Opportunities and threats are outward facing. They are qualities of the environment, actions of competitors, or imminent events that will have an effect on you. The goal is to build on strengths and take advantage of opportunities, while eliminating weaknesses and preventing threats from knocking you down.
In order to get a handle on where to focus attention, after brainstorming, it's important to group and rank the items you have listed. Provide additional details to determine the size of the threat or the amount of money an opportunity may be worth to you. Often there are connections between the internal and external analysis. You can leverage your strengths to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. Overcoming a weakness may open up new opportunities. So draw those connections and quantify each aspect of your analysis, but keep your analysis simple and visual. Keeping it all on one page will allow you and others to see how all the parts tie together. Provide additional information as a separate write-up and attach it on following pages. Of course, as you begin making decisions on what to focus on, you will come up with a more detailed plan, which is great, but the initial analysis should remain simple and understandable by anyone who picks it up.
People usually like showing off their good side, so it is easy to list the strengths, however realistic they actually are. It's more difficult for managers to get honest answers from their employees about real weaknesses and threats, so it is important to create a safe place when brainstorming the more negative aspects. Here's where having done your relationship building with your team will allow there to be enough trust to do this legitimately. You might have to use a technology solution to allow team members to submit weaknesses and threats anonymously if you don't have the trust to do so face to face. Being aware of and honest about your challenges can show as much or more strength as listing out what your strengths are.