Editor’s note: This blog was updated 25 May 2023 to focus on the 2×2 prioritization matrix and remove irrelevant information. The update also explained the process of using a 2×2 prioritization matrix in greater detail.
Product teams and management must prioritize their tasks and activities to build a successful product. Therefore, organizing a group of tasks and ranking them according to numerous factors such as impact, effort, risk, scope, and time brings clarity. It helps product teams complete each task within the desired timeframe.
In addition, prioritizing activities determines the maximum value and expected outcomes from the tasks, which further accelerates product teams to accomplish more.
In this article, we’ll talk about the prioritization matrix and how you can use it in product management. There will also be a link at the end of the article to download sample templates.
Table of contents
- Background information
- How does a prioritization matrix work?
- Benefits of using a prioritization matrix
- Step-by-step guide: How to create a prioritization matrix
- Example of a prioritization matrix
- Prioritization matrix: Free template
- Common mistakes to avoid when using a prioritization matrix
Introduction and background
Often, product managers juggle between multiple product priorities. Many surveys show that most product managers are unsure if the feature they built solves the right customer problem, which, in turn, creates user value. Amidst these uncertainties, product teams often end up catering to multiple stakeholders’ requests and random feature backlogs based on other priorities, which overall takes the product roadmap in a random direction.
In such cases, teams engage and negotiate with several stakeholders simultaneously, wasting their effort and time. As a result, PMs lose focus on solving the right problem and building the right features to deliver value.
Product prioritization frameworks, like the prioritization matrix, are essential tools for product managers. They not only assist in determining what to work on next but also help to quickly assess whether an initiative is worth the company’s time and budget. There are multiple different prioritization frameworks to choose from, but we’ll focus on the standard 2×2 prioritization matrix in this article.
How does a prioritization matrix work?
A prioritization matrix is a specific prioritization framework that provides visual insight into which tasks should be completed first. It’s used to make it easy to compare and rank different tasks or initiatives based on chosen criteria. The most common type is a 2×2 matrix, where the two axes represent different factors, such as effort and impact, or cost and benefit.
Each task or initiative is plotted on the matrix, which helps visualize its relative ranking compared to the others. You can use logic and your team’s bandwidth to figure out the action item for each quadrant:
Let’s go through examples in the graphics above, starting with the lefthand matrix:
- The top right quadrant represents a task that requires high effort and has a high impact. That’s good and should be prioritized since it’ll require more effort and more planning
- The top left quadrant requires the same high effort but has a low impact. This isn’t worth doing at all, why spend all that effort for little payout?
- The bottom right quadrant requires low effort and has a high impact — this is great, definitely do it! It’s easy to do and will be great for the business. That doesn’t need to be immediately prioritized since it won’t take long but should be done
- The bottom left quadrant requires low effort but results in a low impact. You can consider this one, but since the impact is low, it’s up to the team on if they want to pursue it
Though the matrix on the right has the same scale of low-to-high from left to right and bottom to top, the context changes — therefore, the rules of each quadrant will change:
- The top right quadrant represents a high benefit and a high cost. Think about doing that task, but maybe don’t commit to it right away
- The top left quadrant has the same high benefit but is a low-cost task. This a no-brainer, that should be prioritized!
- The bottom right quadrant has a high cost and a low benefit. This should be scrapped — the effort isn’t worth the payout
- The bottom left quadrant has low benefits and a low cost. You can consider that one if you’d like, but the benefits are still low despite the few resources
Benefits of using a prioritization matrix
Though the 2×2 prioritization matrix seems simple in nature, it reaps big benefits!
De-risks the product enhancement process
De-risking the product is an important concept — the prioritization matrix helps product managers de-risk opportunities and solutions. It also helps them reduce the risk of building useless features that don’t create value for a customer. By having a straightforward visual grid with only four quadrants, it forces team members to not overthink the features they are building. Being forced to categorize features into only four buckets with an action plan in place greatly reduces the risk of building unnecessary things.
De-risking the product saves time, effort, and cost. These are important factors for scaling the product, creating a quicker time to market, and generating a lower time to value.
Simplifies the product roadmap
A prioritization matrix gives weightage to the scoring method that helps prioritize tasks and simplify the roadmap. A simplified roadmap always contains high-priority items based on effort, cost, and time, which means users will continuously get the value they are looking for without waiting months and quarters.
Increases alignment across leadership and product teams
Dealing with multiple stakeholders and their prioritization is an absolute nightmare for a product team. Keeping a prioritized roadmap is a one-stop solution for clear communication around potential risks, blockers, complexity, and prioritized backlogs. It ensures that all internal and external stakeholders, as well as leadership, are on the same page.
Eventually, this reduces trading off between a prioritized and unprioritized task/backlog list because of differing stakeholders’ prioritization.
Improves time management and efficiency
The prioritization matrix greatly improves the time management and efficiency of teams. It provides a clear view of tasks and their corresponding levels of urgency and importance, time and effort, etc. and teams can allocate their time and resources more efficiently as a result.
There’s no more squandering valuable hours on low-impact tasks. Instead, the matrix prompts teams to zero in on the tasks that bring the most value in the least amount of time.
Step-by-step guide: How to create a prioritization matrix
In this section, I will explain the step-by-step process of creating a 2×2 prioritization matrix grid that measures value vs. effort. As I mentioned in earlier sections, these two factors are not the only way to use a 2×2 matrix. You can really measure any two factors you’d like, whether that includes cost, time, effort, value, resources, stakeholder buy-in, etc. Effort vs. value tends to be the most common for product teams, so we’ll stick with that for our example:
The image above shows the 2×2 grid drawn across the matrix grid in four quadrants:
- High value, low effort,
- High-value, high effort
- Low value, high effort
- Low value, low effort
The product team places backlog items/features/tasks in each quadrant according to the estimated value and effort of the tasks. It’s up to you to decide what each of the quadrants means in terms of action items. If teams don’t have the bandwidth to take on any low-effort tasks, for example, that could mean scrapping any features that fall into those two buckets. Other teams may have more capacity and can consider all of them, so it depends on your organization to decide what to do.
For example, in the above template, we’ll infer that the top right of the quadrant, Q1, is the most suitable task to prioritize because it requires more planning (compared to Q4, a low-effort task that has the same high value):
To plot the features, the team can use the following process:
- Decide to use an easily available, collaborative whiteboard. There are many, like Miro, Fig Jam, and the Canva whiteboard
- Add all the tasks/backlogs/features to sticky notes on the board
- Ask the product team to start placing them according to their previously decided value and effort in the grid
- Review, brainstorm, and compare each of them and make changes
- Finalize the action plan
There are some important tips and tactics to follow while using the template. Firstly, the team must determine the value of the features before placing them on the matrix during the session. This is not an on-the-spot process — many factors, like business and stakeholder risk/impact, need to be considered while assigning a value scale to a task.
Likewise, determine effort estimation before placing each of them in the quadrant. Ensure the effort estimation is well-discussed with the engineering and design teams. One can use t-shirt sizing or play poker’s agile methods to define a high level of effort estimation. It will help the team easily match each of these tasks with its identified value and impact.
Finally, revisit the matrix from time to time. For example, it’s recommended that product managers revisit the matrix either once a month or every 15 days. This is to project the up-to-date status of the matrix based on quick customer changes:
Example of a prioritization matrix
Let’s assume a company is trying to build a mobile gaming app. Firstly, the team assigns the value and effort for each task and later plots them in the 2×2 grid to visualize the priority.
Further, the team can brainstorm during this activity to relook at the value and effort estimated across each task before prioritizing them.
Moreover, a team can use the below prioritization method, user story mapping, to identify the MVP experience, as well as the customer journey of MVP and the subsequent releases. Considering the above example of developing a gaming app, the team has used the user story mapping method to identify potential features across the product capabilities:
If possible, create a downloadable and customizable prioritization matrix template, preferably in Google Sheets or an easily copiable and shareable document.
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Prioritization matrix: Free template
You can download the 2×2 matrix here.
Common mistakes to avoid when using a prioritization matrix
One of the most common mistakes product teams make when using a prioritization matrix is disregarding the balance between effort and impact. Teams often fall into the trap of prioritizing tasks that are easy to complete but deliver minimal value, or on the contrary, taking on high-impact tasks that demand an unrealistic amount of resources.
To avoid this, it’s important to remember the purpose of the matrix — to provide a clear perspective on the trade-offs between task complexity and its potential benefits, or between the other important factors of your choosing. Rigorously analyzing these factors can help teams strike a balance, ensuring resources are expended wisely for maximum value delivery.
Another common error is neglecting stakeholder inputs in the process. The prioritization matrix isn’t solely a tool for the product team — it should incorporate insights from all relevant stakeholders.
Ignoring these inputs can lead to an inward-focused perspective, which could potentially alienate customers or overlook valuable business insights. Ensure that a range of stakeholders are involved in the prioritization process, not just the direct product team. Incorporate their perspectives when populating the matrix, and continually revisit their inputs to keep the product roadmap aligned with both user needs and business goals.
And that’s it! Thanks for following along with this lengthy article about product prioritization. We discussed the prioritization matrix, its benefits, how to use it, and how to create one yourself. Hopefully, it was helpful to you. Thanks for reading!
Featured image source: IconScout
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