A key component to any strategy is properly prioritizing the goals, activities, and/or tasks. There are many ways to prioritize and while various tools can be effective, what may be more important is identifying a tool and leveraging it fully.
A tool we use to prioritize action with clients and partners at Secoya Strategies is the Impact-Difficulty Matrix. This tool was first introduced to us through Douglas K. Smith, and it serves as a way to prioritize goals or activities. In this tool, the y-axis of the matrix captures impact and the x-axis of the matrix captures difficulty. Individuals and teams are able to then map their goals, strategies, or tasks on the matrix, to determine where effort and resources should be prioritized. The matrix also serves to chart a path toward momentum as even low impact results can pave the way for higher impact results down the road.
How to Use the Tool
List on a document or a piece of paper all of the goals or strategies or tasks that need to be accomplished. One important caveat, the matrix should be used for only one of these (goals/strategies/tasks) at a time. That is to say, a single matrix should not have both goals AND strategies on it, but rather one or the other. Once you have the list, give each item an identifier, either a single word or letter that links to the item.
Once you have an identified list, it’s time to map. Either alone or in collaboration with others, start mapping or placing each item on the list based on their level of impact and difficulty. Items that might have a small return might be lower on the graphic, while other items with a larger return might be higher. As is the case with many tools and frameworks used in leadership, management, and performance, leveraging the Impact-Difficulty Matrix to the fullest extent possible is both a science and an art. Mapping must often happen with both subjective, objective, and incomplete data. Individuals and teams can identify criteria with which to identify the difference between high and low, but a lack of complete data should not hinder the use of the tool.
Once items are mapped on the matrix, teams should focus on the items in Quadrant 1 and 2 before focusing on Quadrant 3. The name of the game here is results and momentum, because even low impact results build confidence and momentum to take more action. Those results may even “soften” the level of difficulty of items in Quadrant 3. Items in Quadrant 4 are typically not worth the effort until prior results either soften the difficulty, or increase the likelihood, of the impact of Quadrant 4 items.
Quadrant 1: High Impact and Low Difficulty – Prioritize these items long as they are less difficult (fewer resources and effort) and yield high impact. These are the ideal items to focus on and may even be “home-runs”.
Quadrant 2: Low Impact and Low Difficulty – If you don’t have options in Quadrant 1, start in Quadrant 2. Build momentum and confidence by establishing some wins. Momentum and performance will beget more momentum and performance.
Quadrant 3: High Impact and High Difficulty – These take more time, effort, and resources, but can yield big, important results. Leverage the momentum from wins in Quadrants 1 and 2, to get a win in Quadrant 3. Try also, to break down the item in Quadrant 3 into sub-goals or aspects, that might then, on their own, fall in Quadrants 1 and 2.
Quadrant 4: Low Impact and High Difficulty – Spend as little time here as possible, if any at all. Items in Quadrant 4 often take too long or too many resources to be worth the limited impact. Over time, due to wins in Quadrants 1, 2, and 3, items in Quadrant 4 will tend to slide elsewhere in the matrix.
An example might be an organization with the goal of enrolling 100 participants into a new program. The organization might have brainstormed three strategies for how to best market the program and recruit participants. A) A social media campaign to their 20,000 active followers; B) a door-to-door campaign to register participants, and C) an ad campaign to be displayed on public transportation. Given past experience, financial resources, human capital, and program goals, the team might map item A in quadrant 1, item B in quadrant 3, and item C in quadrant 4. As a result, the tool would suggest focusing on item A first, then item B, and waiting until item C became either easier or more impactful. Of course, the team could always add more strategies and map them accordingly.