SWOT Analysis – What It Is & Why It Works

Summer 2016 Dublin, Ohio

Summer 2016
Dublin, Ohio

Sometimes knowing what you don’t do is even more important than knowing what you do. Articulating what we don’t do can save endless hours of metaphorical torture. Engaging in a bit of reflective SWOT analysis can help a creative individual decide when an opportunity is worth pursuing… And when it definitely is not.



SWOT analysis is a market research acronym meant to help companies identify their place within an industry and protect against external industry threats (a new competitor, a new technology, natural disaster, etc.). But it works for individuals as well.


Let’s start with the fun part: Strengths (S). What are your strengths? What do you do really well? What distinguishes you from your peers?


We’ll come back to the answer to this question frequently. Your strengths (or your competencies, or your unique value proposition) informs your pricing structure, the way you describe your work, and – above all else – the opportunities you choose to pursue as part of your creative career.


In articulating your own strengths, don’t be afraid to put them in writing and live with them for a bit. (We favor post-it notes listing core competencies, but really any system will work.) Asking a trusted peer or mentor for input can help as well. Borrowing someone else’s adjectives to describe what we do and how we do it can yield insights we might miss on our own.


After listing your strengths, think about what you omitted from the list: Weaknesses (W). What are your weaknesses? These can be weaknesses you hope to improve upon or those you simply embrace. Weaknesses aren’t bad. They are a realistic assessment of where you are – and are note—willing and able to deliver the most value to the world. What is the part about a project you always dread? What is the last professional project that made you cringe? What is your least favorite part of your process or your work? What do you secretly fear someone will ask you to do?


Articulating weaknesses is an important part of honing your creative career. As you examine each one, identify the weaknesses you want to improve upon, and include them as part of your goal-setting process. (Don’t forget to quantify the process of improving each one!)


Then, identify the ones you want to embrace, and articulate how you will incorporate each one within your creative career. There’s a good chance the first thing you articulate will be fairly negative. (And that’s okay.) If it is, work on reframing it as a positive part of your strategy, rather than a negative one.

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By focusing on your strengths and incorporating a plan to address or embrace your weaknesses into your overall creative career, it will become easier to decide whether or not to accept an opportunity.


And by the way, that’s the next part of the SWOT analysis: Opportunity (O). Unlike strengths and weaknesses, opportunities are external. That is, they exist outside of us. We can choose whether or not to pursue opportunities that may arise based on how those opportunities complement our strengths and weaknesses.


Sometimes we are tempted to say yes to every opportunity that arises, simply because saying yes is considerably less scary than saying no. And early on in a creative career, you should always say yes more often than you say no. Without a bit of experience under your proverbial belt, it is next to impossible to really articulate strengths and weaknesses.


But at some point that changes, and a bit of opportunity editing becomes crucial to growing a creative career in the most advantageous way. (I wish there were a perfect way to identify that point within a creative career. There isn’t. I’m sorry.) But once you’re at that point, you’ll know. In fact, you’ll probably figure it out one opportunity too late. That is, you’ll find yourself completing a project that all of a sudden doesn’t make sense for you any more. And you’ll use that knowledge to edit the next opportunity a bit better. And the one after that. And the one after that.


The last part of a SWOT analysis is the least fun of all: Threats (T). Threats are risks to our businesses and creativity that are often outside of our control. For some creative individuals, these are industry-level threats. (Think about wedding photographers who compete with all guests who have smart phones, fine artists whose customers compare their work to the output of “Wine and Canvas” events at bars and restaurants, and writers who compete with, well, anyone with a blog.)


As with any negative externalities, the strategy for dealing with threats is two-fold. First we acknowledge the threat (and we honestly assess its potential impact on our creativity). Then we deal with it, either by highlighting the ways our strengths distinguish us from threats, or by enhancing our weaknesses to better combat the threat.


But in all cases, by focusing on what we can control instead of what is beyond our control, we’ll be better able to respond to the changing world. That’s why we start by articulating Strengths and Weaknesses. As long as we’re clear about who we are and what we do well, we’ll be just fine.


Now What?

Want to learn more about aligning your strengths with opportunities? Check out Goal Setting for Portfolio Careers, a 3-hour self-study course to put these theories into creative action.


SS_GoalSettingGoal Setting for Portfolio Careers

You probably have a goal: To keep doing exactly what you want to be doing without going broke. But what if you could do more? In this course, you’ll learn why the traits that enhance your creativity are also fantastic for building tools to make your creative career work for you.

This course is completely self-paced, meaning you can read the materials and do the activities on your own time. But don’t worry. You won’t be alone.

At Minerva Financial Arts, we care about artists and the community… A lot. All our courses are distinguished from others by Elaine’s hands-on, supportive approach to coaching you through the material. Enjoy!


If It Bleeds, It Leads

Public Art at Boston Logan International Airport, February 2016

Public Art at Boston Logan International Airport, February 2016

There’s an old newsroom trope that is generally thought to have originated in a 1989 cover story for New York Magazine by Eric Poole. The piece, “Grins, Gore, and Videotape: The Trouble with Local TV News,” was a sweeping critique of the sensationalism of violence in the spirit of newsy entertainment, especially at the expense of nuance, perspective, and thoughtful context.


Poole’s full quote reads: “The thoughtful report is buried because sensational stories must launch the broadcast: If it bleeds, it leads.”


At its foundation, the quote references what happens to us all too often: We have no time to think, reflect, strategize or plan. We’re too busy dealing with the unexpected daily crises that hit our calendars and our schedules. We’re triaging problems, emails, issues, and whatever else might unexpectedly unfold.


In some ways, we do this to ourselves. Our calendars are filled to the brim with meetings, calls, and pressing tasks, and we fail to plan for the real work we must do each day, let alone debrief sessions, exhale time, strategizing time, exercise, or anything else.


But in other ways, we’re victims of this trope. Those who need to find me – and even plenty of people who don’t need to find me – know where I generally am. They know the office hours I keep and my physical presence often results in “pop in” appointments.  I am both guilty of encouraging this and also forcing these “pop ins” on others. “Oh good, you’re here. Do you have a second?”  They also know how to access my calendar online, so surveying my availability is easier than ever. This makes scheduling meetings more efficient, (I certainly participate in fewer “Are you free during this time slot” email exchanges, which might be the biggest waste of email server space ever), but it also means every possible available moment is bookable.


So what can we do about it?


We can make thoughtfulness a discipline. We can refuse to subscribe to the sensationalism of our schedules. We can reclaim our calendars.


This is a little easier said than done, but there are some relatively easy practices that can help.


Planning Time

I once had a colleague who blocked out the first 30 minutes of his work day each and every day for planning time.  I admire the idea behind this practice, but I wonder at its effectiveness. (Often “planning time” seems to be an excuse to run a few minutes late, exercise a bit longer at the gym, or indulge in some inbox clean-up each morning. There’s nothing wrong with these activities, but I wouldn’t call them “planning” activities.)


For me, planning time works best on a weekly basis, rather than a daily one. (And for me, this practice is more aspirational rather than actual, although I am continually trying to make it an actual practice.) Sundays tend to be a perfect planning day for my calendar, and it is already a day when those in my world (my family, my dog) are gearing up for a natural week. But we are heavily focused on an academic calendar; we have a school-age daughter and both my partner and I work in higher education. Sunday works for us.


Two or three hours of planning on a Sunday ensure I have a handle on what I need to do during the week, whether it is planning for regularly scheduled tasks (Who is picking up our daughter on Tuesday? Do I have my lecture planned for Thursday’s class?) and out-of-the-ordinary ones (Am I prepared for my travel on Thursday and Friday? Do we have sitter lined up for Saturday night’s gala?).


I make a to-do list, which starts with a standard list of tasks that happen each week and is supplemented by the non-standard tasks. Starting with the standard list saves me time (do I really need to add “Update blog” to my to-do list every single week?) and allows me to focus on the non-standard items (special coaching sessions, extra classroom visits, etc.).


(Side note: We’ve started experimenting with this “standard list” idea for groceries as well… By brain-dumping my standard inventory knowledge of our kitchen and go-to meals into a standard shopping list, I empower anyone else to grocery shop on my behalf without having to transfer knowledge each and every time. Whew!)


And there is something really fulfilling about starting a week with a list of tasks, and finishing the week having made progress on all or some of them.


Travel Time

In my latest smart phone update, my calendar app added a “travel time” feature. Not only is this brilliant and overdue, it saves me the time of booking an extra 30 minutes before and after meetings for which I have to travel. (It also saves me the brain power of having to remember if a 12:30 meeting is really at 12:30 or if it is at 1:00 and I simply booked the time on my calendar to include travel time. No longer do I have to search through my email correspondence to remember why I booked an appointment when I booked it.)


The travel time feature can be GPS-based (so it syncs with your location and the expected travel time to a meeting’s location) or it can be manual. I, personally, favor manually setting the travel time and adjusting my calendar reminders so I’m alerted at the beginning of a travel time appointment or five minutes before (“It’s time to leave!” fashion), rather than simply defaulting to a 15-minute reminder before meetings (which sometimes only make me anxious or annoyed if I am already en route or not quite ready to leave).


Capturing travel time—an already occurring time that we often forget to plan adequately for—is a simple way to reclaim control of your schedule. Especially during winter, when travel time often doubles, especially during the day when important task bleed into other important tasks. Especially when we’d rather not be rushed and forced to text our meeting partners while we’re in route.


Reflection Time

In addition to scheduling travel time, I’ve been trying to schedule “follow up” time after each meeting or event. This is the time I need to address any to-do items that may come from the meeting, update and finalize my notes to reflect the substance of our conversations, and send follow-up correspondence.  (My smart phone doesn’t automatically add this, but I do. And certain meeting scheduling tools, like Time Trade, do build this in.)


The reflection and follow-up time varies, but I try to never make it less than 30 minutes per hour long meeting. If the follow-up relates to a coaching session or a workshop I’ve led, I always make it at least an hour.


That allows me to go to the bathroom, top off my coffee, drink some water, and follow up on whatever I need to do, whether it is sending emails of thanks, sharing resources from a webinar, or updating notes from a coaching session.


If I don’t schedule this time, the follow-up tasks (and the are always follow-up tasks!) bleed into my other meetings and commitments.  I often end up running late to other meetings, dinners are cut short, and I have less time to spend doing other important things. Like sleeping.


I don’t like running late. I don’t like feeling rushed. I don’t like having to curtail parenting responsibilities in favor of work. And I really don’t like losing sleep.  Building in some extra time – what a luxury! – ensures I don’t have to do any of those things. (Usually.)


I say usually because these are really best practices that are aspirational. There will always be moments when work bleeds into life. There will always be emergencies that cause all plans to go out the window. (And by the way, those emergencies are just as often not work related as they are work related.)


But dealing with the unexpected and emergencies takes energy.  And if we’ve used up all our energy in failing to plan for “emergencies” we can reasonably expect (like the fact that nearly every meeting will require some level of follow up afterwards), the true emergencies are much, much harder to deal with.


Your Presence is a Present

Include some unscheduled time in your day for the unexpected visits to your office, for the voice at the other end of the phone, and for the unanticipated crisis you’ll be asked to solve. Your presence—your real presence—is a present to those around you.


There will always be “pop in” appointments from our colleagues. There will always be found moments of conversation in hallways or near the coffee pot. There will always be accidental encounters that interrupt our calendars.


Plan for these unplanned moments by leaving some room in your schedule. With a bit of unplanned time in your day, you give these experiences the chance to unfold, instead of rushing through them or avoiding them entirely. They are as important to your long-term success as whatever else you had planned for the day, and by planning for them—or at least leaving room for the unplanned—you ensure whatever else you did have planned doesn’t get trumped by other activities.


This time is a present to yourself as well. When we are present—really present—we focus more on the task at hand. We’re more efficient. We enjoy our tasks more. We feel better about what we’re doing. We get more done. We get more good done. We have some room to breathe. And a bit of fresh air does wonders for our creativity, our professionalism, and our general outlooks.


And at the end of a good day, we are ready for more good. We are present for our families, our friends, and ourselves. And we are energized for whatever comes next, whether it bleeds or not.