Stuck on a decision? Use a decision matrix!

It's 2020 and the last year brought multiple changes for me including the end of a large chapter in my life working on LulzBot 3D. I've been figuring out what I'm doing next and have already started a consulting business, Ninebark. The next step for me is to start a product business, which is where this article comes in.

When you have numerous competing priorities or directions it is often difficult to focus on where to start. This can occur when you have multiple viable options that are not immediately clear which would provide the best outcome. An exercise I've often used to push through to a decision and create progress is a decision matrix.

The basis of a decision matrix is a list of choices or competing priorities that are scored by factors relevant to the decision or topic. As you'll see further below, a decision matrix can be as simple or complex as you would like. The basic outcome you need is a final score ranking of your choices to provide guidance on your decision.

As with most decision making tools, they are not necessarily used to give you a sure guaranteed answer. Often the process of completing the exercise provides clarity of your options, making it easier for you to make a decision. This is how a decision matrix is best used.

To start on your decision matrix you need to first have a list of choices. Be sure to include all relevant choices, including a possibility of doing nothing. It is very likely doing nothing will have a low score but it would be better to confirm that.

As an example, I'll use the very serious/not serious decision of which should I eat for breakfast. I have a number of possibilities to choose from:

  • Eggs and bacon
  • Cereal with a cartoon character on the box
  • Granola bar
  • Smoothie
  • Skip breakfast

All of these choices are realistic possible options that I could consider. Because I'm trying to figure out what I'm eating for breakfast I'm likely still half asleep. So, I need factors to score my options by. A few factors I can think of while I stumble into the kitchen:

  • Prep time
  • Nutrition
  • Cost
  • Craving

Now that I have my list of choices and factors it is time to score them. This decision matrix is fairly simple so it could be done by hand on paper. However, I like working from a spreadsheet to make the calculations quicker. In the spreadsheet I put in all of the choices and factors and create a Total column to sum the scores of each option.

At the end of the article I'll link to a spreadsheet template you can download and work from.

With the matrix created I can now start scoring my options. There are a number of different ways you can score but you need a minimum number and maximum number and the direction of your scoring. For example, I'm going to use a 1 to 5 scale with 5 being the most positive view of that choice and 1 being the worst. In my total scores the choice with the highest score will be the item that is likely the choice I want to take.

Be aware this can be confusing with some factors that are an inverse factor. For example, my Prep time factor is inverse in that I want shorter prep time. Because the shorter prep time is a positive point for me I would give a higher score the shorter the prep time is. For my four factors I will be scoring as:

  • Prep time - less time is a higher score
  • Nutrition - more nutritious is a higher score
  • Cost - less cost is a higher score
  • Craving - more craving is a higher score

With clarity in my scoring I can now put a 1-5 score for each choice/factor. Once all my scores are completed we can see my total summed for each choice option. In this outcome, making a smoothie is the highest scoring option largely due to the high scores in nutrition and craving.

This simple decision matrix can be left as is and I can get started making my smoothie. However, often one factor has a stronger effect or weight on your decision than others. For example, if I'm running late that morning the prep time factor would have a greater effect on my decision than the craving or nutrition factors.

An easy way to add weight to your factors is to also score your factors in a 1 to 5 scale. You then multiply your choice score by the factor weight score and sum the scores as before. Here is a an example of the weight calculations.

In a spreadsheet I wouldn't normally put the calculation in the score field. Instead I would calculate the weight inside the sum function. For example, in the spreadsheet graphic below I calculate the total score of Eggs and bacon (F5) with:

=SUM(B5*$B$2,C5*$C$2,D5*$D$2,E5*$E$2)

With the new weighted calculations it is more clear that I should just grab a quick granola bar to get my day started faster.

The example of deciding breakfast is a good way to convey the structure of a decision matrix as most people can relate to getting stuck on deciding a meal. However, a decision matrix is probably not worth your time in deciding breakfast every morning. A decision matrix is often best used in cases where your choices are many, complex, or seem very similar in your current understanding.

A few examples of decisions that may be good for a decision matrix:

  • Hosting provider for your new web app
  • Car model to replace an aging car
  • Bid proposal winner for a project you are managing
  • New office location for your business
  • Product market to enter with a new product

The last one is where I am. My current matrix has about a dozen factors and almost as many choices. Shortly I should have a decision on a few products for this year and will talk about them soon.

If you would like to work from a pre-made spreadsheet template similar to what I've shown above, I've made a template you can start from. Download for either LibreOffice (.ods) or Excel (.xlsx).

Have any questions or would like to talk about a business or product decision you're working on? Feel free to dm me on Twitter or fill out the contact form on my consulting website.

Gray High-Rise Building Photo by Henry & Co. on Unsplash

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