Decide Better with a Decision Matrix

Some decisions are easy to make, like:

  • Should I wear my green shirt or red shirt today?
  • Should I have Cheerios or Fruit Loops for breakfast?
  • Which TV show should I watch tonight?

Other decisions involve a bit more complexity, pressure, or good old-fashioned consequence:

  • Should I take the job offer from company A or company B?
    affecting my income, career satisfaction, commute…
  • Should I invest in stocks, bonds, or something else?
    …considering level of risk, rate of return, flexibility…
  • Should I buy a compact car or an SUV?
    …since I’ll be stuck with it for the next 6–10 years…

…and what if I’m wrong?

It’s a universal, human question, but as we become a society with more choices than ever, it’s a question that seems to be increasingly relevant.

“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
- Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Just listen to your gut?

We’re sometimes told to listen to our gut when making decisions, but when the stakes are high or when there are many factors to consider, it can be increasingly difficult to make and be confident in a decision (and to avoid the subsequent Buyer’s Remorse). How can we be sure we’ve captured everything? What can we do when we feel that we’re waffling between our choices, with our “best guess” seeming to change by the minute?

Some would argue that there are cases when “gut feelings” are best kept out of the equation completely. For example: when the looming weight of a decision might lead one‘s “gut” to be more influenced by fear rather than reason.

The Decision Matrix

The Decision Matrix (also known as the Pugh Matrix) is a decision-making method that can help us visualize the choices we have in front of us, the factors influencing how favorable each choice is, and ultimately which choice is — at least from an objective, logical sense— the “best” choice.

Creating a decision matrix requires being systematic — creating an inventory of all of the choices we can make, and the influences (or factors) that we can use to judge each choice. In creating the matrix, we’re also able to visualize our findings in ways that are more powerful than a simple lists of pros and cons.

How it works

Searching for a “decision matrix” example on the internet can yield some pretty complex and math-heavy diagrams of spreadsheets and equations. But the actual concept of a decision matrix is fairly simple, and it mimics the process that we all go through when comparing any set of choices:

  1. What are the possible choices I can make? 
    (eg: Buying a compact car or an SUV)
  2. What factors should I consider to determine which choice is best? 
    (eg: Gas mileage, aesthetics, price)
  3. Of these factors, which are the most important factors?
    (eg: I need a car that looks good to me, but it would be nice if it’s also good on gas mileage)
  4. For each factor, how well does each choice meet my need
    (eg: The compact car I’m considering is only $15,000, making it a good fit. The SUV’s $22,000 price tag, on the other hand…)

An example decision matrix:

The decision matrix starts with choices in the top row, and the factors and their “importances” in the first two columns. For each combination of factor and choice, a rating is created. A bit of basic math summarizes the total score for each choice based on the total of all of the choice’s ratings, multiplying each rating by the corresponding importance.

In this example, the importance of “Good mileage” clearly makes the “Compact car” the winner.

Limitations

Is the decision matrix too rational and logical? Sure, it might help us choose a car with more confidence, but what about complicated life decisions — which are often subject to unpredictable circumstances, or our own poor predictions? Can all of this be distilled down to a simple list of component factors and ratings?

Perhaps we should consider the use of a decision matrix akin to asking a robot consultant: “What do you think?” The decision matrix can only analyze the data we give it. At the very least, the process of creating a decision matrix may help us think critically about what we value as we approach a decision.

Ready to make your own?

I’ve found that constructing a decision matrix can be a bit challenging using traditional spreadsheet tools (creating the structure, formulas, visualizations), so I created a small tool to (hopefully) make the process a little easier.

The tool uses a simple ranking system (1–3 for importances and ratings), as well as a way to capture “low confidence” ratings you’re not sure sure about.

Watch the short tutorial video below, and then try it out yourself.

Video tutorial

Launch the Decision Matrix tool: https://mmorosky.github.io/decisionmatrix/