The one-stop prioritisation matrix guide

Simple prioritisation matrixThe prioritisation matrix is an important decision making tool that enables you to work through different options (either by yourself or with groups of stakeholders) to determine the best course of action.

There are many types of matrices; some are very simple and others are more complex. The aim of this page is to introduce the basic concept of the priority matrix and show you how to develop your own to suit your specific needs.

But first lets remind ourselves why prioritisation is so difficult. You may be familiar with the following situation:

Stressed-out founder / product manager / senior leader: Help! I’m drowning in new feature requests from customers, I need to comply with new legal regulations, our support teams are not coping with product issues and I have a board of investors pushing ideas to drive growth; but I’ve only got limited time and budget and simply can’t do all these things at once, so what do I do?

Our hero certainly seems to be in quite a pickle and desperately needs help to gain agreement on some rational decisions with both his direct team and their wider group of stakeholders. Fortunately a prioritisation matrix is just the tool to help facilitate this.

Let’s take a look a more detailed look…

The simple prioritisation matrix

In its most simple form, a matrix can be used to compare different things in terms of their level of impact and degree of difficulty. The matrix has four boxes representing the different levels of impact and difficulty. These go by different labels but are essentially:

  • Major Projects – things that will have a high impact, but are going to be difficult to implement.
  • Quick wins – things that will have a high impact and will be straightforward to implement.
  • Hard slogs – things that will have a low impact and will be difficult to implement – best to avoid these if possible.
  • Fill ins – things that will be easy to implement, but will have low impact – place these towards the bottom of your priority list.

Simple prioritisation matrix

Here’s how to use a simple prioritisation matrix to work through the fuzz with your team and agree on a way forward.

First gather your team together and using post-it notes, start writing down all the ‘things’ that you’ve got to do.

Try to capture everything, from the big scary legal issues all the way through to the shiny new features you want to build – make sure you use one post-it note per item.

Then with some sticky tape create a four square grid on the wall, so you have something similar to the image above and as a group start placing post-it notes into the most appropriate box.

In the top right-hand box of the grid, place all the post-it notes with things that will have a high impact, but also have a high degree of difficulty.

In the top left-hand box of the grid, place all the things that will have a high impact and a low degree of difficulty.

In the bottom right-hand box of the grid, place all the things that will have a low impact, but a high degree of difficulty.

And in the bottom left-hand box, place all the things that will have a low impact and a low degree of difficulty.

Get team members to explain why they are placing something into a particular box and ensure the debate is balanced against time, so that the group gets to do sufficient analysis for all the items being discussed.

By the end of the session, you should have a clear view of the items that are worth considering further (quick wins and major projects) and those that are better parked (fill ins and hard slogs).

Having reduced the number of options, it then becomes easier to determine the priority order in which you tackle the different items.

Modifying the simple matrix to your industry

The simple matrix can be modified to focus on specific topics or industry-specific practices. For example the following matrix helps digital teams determine which new features they develop, based on the perceived value of the feature to the end user and the level of complexity (which equates to a time and money investment).

User needs prioritisation

Features in the top left-hand box will be particularly attractive to cash-strapped development teams, as they will realise the most immediate user benefits, which should then encourage better retention and new customer acquisition.

More complex features that have lower user value will end up in the bottom right-hand box and can subsequently be moved to the bottom of the development backlog (unless there is some other important driver for developing them).

Prioritising for different business drivers

Unfortunately business life is never as straightforward and two-dimensional as a textbook prioritisation matrix would suggest and there are often lots of different drivers competing for resource and attention.

The makeup and background of these drivers make it difficult to compare like-for-like, but the following matrix can be used to capture the different drivers on one page and understand the contrasting factors that make them important.

In this case there are four competing drivers:

  • Customer value – things that make customers want to use the product or service.
  • Financial – the need to reduce costs and increase profitability.
  • Legal – Regulations and other legal matters that need to be adhered to in order to avoid a penalty.
  • Political – often a pet-project of a senior executive on a massive ego-trip, but could also be a need to respond to pressure groups or lobbyists and avoid bad press.

Each driver is assigned its own box on the grid and individual ideas, opportunities or threats related to that driver are placed in the relevant box and plotted based on their level of impact and degree of difficulty.

Contrasting matrix

The grid is not intended to provide the final answer on which thing should have highest priority, but instead provides a portfolio view and drives the conversations that enable connections to be made that may not be immediately obvious.

For example, there will often be links between an item in one of the boxes and something else in another box (if you are creating this board physically on a wall bits of string can be used to show the links), so a project to reduce the amount of sugar used to manufacture chocolate bars could also offset the growing political tensions around obesity and poor health; effectively earning the manufacturer the double bonus of appealing to healthier consumers and avoiding reputational harm.

This combination would potentially escalate the project above another that focuses solely on a single benefit, such as cost-cutting.

Improving your personal productivity

Prioritisation matrices can also be adapted for personal use too.

One of the most famous personal productivity tools is the Eisenhower Matrix, which was used by former US President and WW2 commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to make tough decisions on which tasks he should focus on each day.

Eisenhower matrix

To help make these decisions he categorised his tasks into the different boxes based on their levels of urgency and importance:

  • Urgent and Important – Do these tasks first
  • Important, but less urgent – Schedule these tasks to do later
  • Less important, but urgent – Delegate to others
  • Less urgent and less important – Don’t do these tasks

Developing your own prioritisation matrix

We’ve seen how the simple matrix can be modified to suit a specific industry or type of business, and how additional grids layers of complexity can be applied to provide a much more strategic view of the drivers impacting the behaviours of an organisation.

As you begin to modify the simple matrix to your own needs, try to keep in mind the end goal that you and your team are trying to achieve, as this will help to define the most pertinent factors to influence your decision making.

It is best to avoid making your prioritisation matrix excessively complex (some people use elaborate scoring systems to determine where items should be placed) and try not to dwell on making the perfect decisions with the matrix, as it is only there to quickly categorise opportunities and facilitate the conversation to determine priorities.

Remember this is a tool that is there to serve you and not the other way round. Use and adapt it to your needs, but don’t fall into the trap of making the process more important than the outcome.

Good luck and keep focused 🙂