The Almighty Decision Matrix

Generating and Prioritizing Ideas

Your team is struggling with a problem, and you know that they’re capable of solving it. You want to help facilitate the conversation so that the team can get to the best solution together. How do you ensure each person has an opportunity to be heard? How do you start honing in on the best solution? A little bit of group brainstorming and The Almighty Decision Matrix can help.

Step 1: Ideate

First, you need some ideas. Here’s a quick and easy way to brainstorm as a group:

  • Summarize the goal of the exercise for the benefit of the group. Are you trying to come up with a feature that solves a pain point for users? Are you listing out assumptions that need to be validated before moving forward?
  • Give everyone a Sharpie marker. Your Sharpie is your “outside voice” so that everyone else can hear you.
  • Give everyone a stack of Post-it notes. Remind everyone to write one idea per Post-it. There will always be one person who tries to cram all of their ideas onto one Post-it.
  • Set a timer for 5 minutes. Go.

Step 2: Prune

After the 5 minutes are up, take a look and see how many Post-its were generated by the group. You’ll want each person to self-prioritize their ideas.

  • Everyone should place their 5 favorite ideas in front of them. Each person is welcome to define “favorite” in their own way. For very large groups, consider asking people to only keep 3 or 4 favorites.
  • Pick up the remaining not-favorite ideas and pass them to your left. On the count of three, rip up the not-favorites that were passed to you.

As you could imagine, some people are uncomfortable with ripping up those ideas without even discussing them first. If those ideas didn’t make the cut as your own favorite, then certainly they wouldn’t win out amongst everyone else’s. If it was a genuinely fantastic idea, it will come back in another form.

Step 3: Prioritize

You might be familiar with the Eisenhower Method of Time Management. If you place all of your tasks in a 2x2 matrix with one axis labeled “Urgency” and other labeled “Importance”, your top priorities become clear very quickly.

This principle can be extended to a more-generic problem solving tactic simply by renaming the axes appropriately. Pick two dimensions are most relevant for the problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re deciding on which features to work on next, consider plotting Value to the Customer vs. Ease of Implementation. For mitigating risks or validating assumptions, try Impact to the Project vs. How Much is Known. If you can pick the right labels, the Almighty Decision Matrix becomes one of the most versatile decision-making tools I’ve encountered.

After you pick your axes, draw your Almighty Decision Matrix on a whiteboard or put some blue masking tape on an empty wall. Gather everyone around and take turns placing your Post-its in the relevant quadrants. A few ground rules:

  • Absolutely no Post-its on the line. It’s either easy or hard. It’s either valuable, or not.
  • Duplicated Post-its do not necessarily have to go into the same quadrant. Two people might have the same idea, but they may not agree on where to place it. Each individual gets to determine where their Post-its should be placed.

Step 4: Focus

Now you get to give titles to your quadrants. You should have one quadrant that’s an obvious collection of “Deal With This Immediately”. The Post-its in this quadrant are the most critical ideas and possibilities that should be discussed as a team. So, get to work!

It’s also worth calling attention to the other quadrants. One quadrant contains things you should just ignore. You may want to title this one “Anti-Goals”. Another quadrant contains things you might want to consider or discuss further. This may be “Out of Scope, At Least for Now”. There’s also a quadrant dedicated to seductive distractions. If it’s not important or valuable, then you shouldn’t do it, even if it’s easy.

Remember that priorities can change, and things that were once difficult may become easier. As with those Post-its you ripped up earlier, if it’s really that important, it will come up again next time. Life… finds a way.