How To Make Decisions With 4 Quadrants

We have to take smart decisions on a permanent basis, and quality decision-making can be downright hard. Especially if it relates to an important issue we’ve been preoccupied with for quite some time. A thing that’s always on our back-burner, or on our radar, depending on who prefers what. The very fact of being preoccupied might blur our thinking, and we might lack clarity in evaluating the options. Everything looks messed up, and — with all the input from colleagues and stakeholders — the ultimate decision-maker might feel disoriented. How to make sense of it all?

Here’s a hypothetical case where we might encounter some challenging choices: rewrite or refactor, as related to a software product. The debate on the choices might get never-ending, and the outcomes may often be as uncertain and elusive as the answers to the Shakespearean “to be or not to be” :) So, do we need to lay all we have on the line? There’s a simple technique that can help decide. What it requires is only a piece of paper and a little bit of your laser-focused time. This technique involves a Cartesian plane, as with the x-y axis and the 4 quadrants. The problem at hand needs to be dissected coolly with the 4 following questions (counterclockwise starting from the upper right):

My digital scribbles.

1. What happens if this doesn’t happen? Things will remain as they are, and for this quadrant we need to collect the pros of this thing not happening. What will we keep, or gain, if the code in our product is not re-written?

2. What happens if this happens? Things will change; zoom in on the pros of this thing happening. Which positive outcomes will a re-write bring?

3. What won’t happen if this happens? Now we switch to the downsides of this thing happening. The 3 and 4th quadrant operate within the negative, as they’re located below the Y-axis, in the minus zone. Remember, this decision-making technique refers to Cartesian quadrants, that’s why it’s tied to the 3–4 quadrants as in the negative, and 1–2 quadrants as in the positive. So, with the code re-written, what is it that we would lose or miss?

4. What won’t happen if this doesn’t happen? What is it that we lose if the code stays as is? Be careful about this last quadrant. The negatives of this thing not happening. Our brain can be lured into sliding along the same track as with answering the 1st quadrant question, because this 4th question is put as a double negation. And your answers could be very similar to the 1st quadrant answer.

Why is this technique so good? The 4 quadrants help get clear about the consequences of each possible decision, considering them from 4 different angles. This technique primarily tackles our unwitting self-sabotaging pattern to dwell on just one question: what happens if this happens?

What’s important with this technique is to actually use a piece of paper to write things down. Our mind will get confused holding many alternative viewpoints. So, this should either be a piece of paper or a digital note.

There’s plenty of other decision-making techniques and practices, both for individuals and for groups, and, of course, there’s much buzz about AI- or data-driven decision-making (and I’m not going into this, for now). The 4 quadrants approach — simple and unassuming — will work surprisingly well for strategic decisions that drill down to the ultimate solo decision-maker.

Related articles:

Decision-Making and Rusty Tin Man

How Technical Debt Trumps Chief Culture Officers


This story has been updated and re-written from one of my earlier articles.