A common and ever-daunting project management challenge is juggling competing priorities to deliver maximum impact.
Prioritization is particularly challenging in a volatile marketplace where company objectives, stakeholder goals, and customer demands constantly evolve.
Thankfully, there’s a simple business analysis tool to help you objectively rank projects, goals, and tasks according to predetermined criteria: a prioritization matrix. This tool provides clarity when you need to make informed decisions about resource allocation, timelines, and project requirements.
What’s a priority matrix?
In project management, a priority matrix – or project prioritization matrix – is an evaluation method for identifying critical tasks based on a defined set of variables.
At its simplest, it’s a two-by-two, four-quadrant grid that measures impact/importance versus urgency/effort. If you compare impact and effort, for example, the items you prioritize will fall into one of four categories:
- High-impact, high effort
- High-impact, low-effort
- Low-impact, high-effort
- Low-impact, low-effort
You’ll want to prioritize the high-impact/low-effort items first, as these are either critical or quick-win tasks. High impact/high effort are high-priority activities to schedule for development. Items ranked as low impact/low effort are nice-to-haves. They’re of neutral value – easy to do and without a high return on investment (ROI) for the business. Finally, avoid low-impact/high-effort tasks at all costs, removing them from the list entirely.
More complex priority matrices track multiple criteria, creating a chart of up to 20 rows or columns. While these will be more precise in pinpointing top priorities, they require more time to make and can complicate the decision-making process.
Whichever level of complexity you choose for your prioritization chart, the goal is to walk away from the exercise with a clear plan of action to address the most pressing items on your to-do list.
Benefits of using a priority matrix
Whether you’re creating a goal, project, or task priority matrix, this project management tool allows you to:
- Determine the priority of complex issues by breaking them down and evaluating them based on contributing factors
- Rank priorities objectively and rationally
- Identify the best place to focus the project team’s efforts
- Establish consistent criteria to assign priority based on discussion and input
- Provide input required for strategic, evidence-based decision-making and substantiate feasibility for stakeholder support
A priority matrix versus Eisenhower matrix
The Eisenhower priority matrix is a more rigid time management tool that only considers importance and urgency. This matrix sorts tasks like into these groups:
In contrast, a prioritization matrix can categorize multiple projects or tasks as follows:
- High priority
- Low priority
Your decision matrix depends on the complexity of the tasks you want to categorize and the time available to decide. If you need a fast answer, go with Eisenhower. Use the prioritization matrix if you need to consider multiple factors and have the time to conduct an in-depth analysis.
When to use a prioritization matrix
Creating a prioritized list clarifies the decision-making process. Here are a few use cases that perfectly suit this analysis type:
- Driving value: Project managers often have to sort through competing stakeholder needs and requirements, and it’s not easy when everyone believes their project should take precedence over others. A priority matrix can evaluate project impact, ROI, and chance of success. The data generated determines the most advantageous business outcome so you can better direct your project team’s focus and resources.
- Improving productivity: If your team seems busy but isn’t delivering your intended impact, they may be focusing on the wrong things. Improve processes by creating a priority matrix to direct them toward critical and high-impact tasks that produce quality business results while devoting less time on neutral and low-priority items.
- Resolving conflicts: Competing for business resources and funding can be fierce. A priority matrix provides a fact-based, objective rationale for why one project receives approval over another. It can also encourage consensus when prioritizing resources or staff and reduce disagreements between team members and external stakeholders.
How to use a priority matrix: 5 steps
You can use a prioritization matrix in various situations, whether you’re sorting through a backlog of tasks, organizing a project plan, or deciding which business goal to target next.
No matter your prioritization needs, the following steps set you up for success.
1. Write a to-do list
Start by listing the tasks or projects you need to prioritize. Visualizing the inventory of everything you need to accomplish makes sorting and mapping the catalog more manageable.
2. Establish criteria
Once you’ve cataloged the task list, determine which variables you’ll use to rank them. Ask yourself which qualities will rank a task at the top of the to-do list by answering the following questions:
- Is it important?
- What’s its impact?
- What’s the time commitment?
- How much effort is required?
- Is the deadline urgent?
Based on your answers, choose the two prioritization variables you’ll use to organize your list.
3. Create your matrix
Using a spreadsheet, whiteboard, or template, define your matrix. Consider your need for precision and speed when deciding whether to create a simple two-by-two, four-quadrant matrix or something more complex. For example, a five-by-five urgency versus effort matrix would look like this:
Label each column and row and assign a numerical value to every category. You’ll multiply these values to weigh each option and rank them accordingly.
4. Populate the matrix
Next, you’ll rely on your experience and background knowledge to make the value judgments to position your tasks within the matrix.
Launch a new product
Develop updated marketing campaign
Improve customer support
Reduce operating costs
Upgrade company website
- Launch new product: 20 (5×4)
- Improve customer support: 15 (5×3)
- Develop updated marketing campaign: 12 (3×4)
- Upgrade company website: 8 (2×4)
- Reduce operating costs: 3 (3×1)
If scoring is equal between two options, select another variable – like importance – and conduct additional research into this criteria to make an informed decision regarding how it will affect the ranking.
5. Develop a plan
Now that you’ve determined which item to address first and an order for completing the rest, it’s time to develop an action plan to cross them off the list.
Your action plan will roadmap how you’ll achieve your objectives by:
- Setting SMART goals
- Allocating resources
- Establishing milestones and deadlines
- Outlining a regular review cadence to respond to changing organizational needs
Document this information within a centralized task management platform and communicate the plan to your team to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Prioritize tasks like a pro with Roadmunk by Tempo
Leveraging a visual task and project road-mapping software like Roadmunk by Tempo can help establish and build visibility around priorities. Whether you’re working in IT, product management, or project management, Roadmunk’s audience-friendly visuals let you clearly identify dependencies and timelines, establish stakeholder alignment, and manage workflows to ensure your team tackles the right jobs at the right time.