How to prioritise

One of the core purposes of collaboration techniques is to explore the question:

How do we make trade-offs?

Every organisation and every person in that organisation has unlimited desires. Our organisations want more market share, more profit, to deliver a better customer experience, to remove inefficiencies in our supply chain, etc. We want personal success (whatever that means), to do meaningful work, to provide for our families, to make our mark on the world, etc. Furthermore, whenever we achieve one thing, we quickly find another to desire.

The flip-side is we have limited resources. We all have limited money, time, attention, ability, etc.

Group decision-making is often choosing how we apply our limited resources to our unlimited desires. Resolving that challenge – the challenge of trade-off – is, in a way, what ‘facilitation’ is about.

One of the most awkward trade-off conversations is when we take a list of things we could do and decide which ones are important to do now. This is the art of prioritisation.

We all know this is hard because we’ve all seen prioritisation matrices that look like this:


The above is a great example of a failed prioritisation exercise. The above tells me a group couldn’t make the hard decisions; they couldn’t find a way to make trade-offs.

I see two reasons this happens. One is about the prioritisation method; the other is about how we think of prioritisation.

A prioritisation method

The problem with the 2 × 2 is that it at least one of the dimensions is too broad. With the right expertise, we can look at a piece of work and make a ‘pretty good’ assessment of how hard it is do it. Effort is the ‘easier’ dimension to assess (although, making an accurate assessment of effort remains incredibly tricky).

‘Value’ however is much more complicated. The first question I have is ‘value to who?’ Does doing that thing mean we create value for the customer? For the business? For the shareholder? Also, what does ‘value’ mean? A better customer experience? An innovative product development approach? More revenue? More profit? All of these things are potentially ‘valuable’. Finally, when does the value get delivered? The day the item is complete? A year after that? It provides value immediately and throughout?

What’s needed is an understanding of ‘value’ for that particular circumstance. A good way to do this is to expand the definition of ‘value’ into some sub-criteria. The right number of sub-criteria is up to you and your circumstances. Some potential sub-criteria might be:

  • How much could this idea improve customer experience?
  • How much could this idea improve revenue?
  • How aligned is this idea is to our current strategic direction?

You’ll notice these components are far more verbose than ‘value’. That’s intentional. When articulating what ‘value’ means, precision is essential. Precision gives us clarity and, more importantly, comparability. With precise criteria, we can look at two things we might do and have a better chance of understanding how much value each provides.

Once you have your sub-criteria, you can start evaluating your ideas against each.

Let’s imagine you have ten ideas you need to prioritise


Work through each of your sub-criteria and do the following:

Rank the top 5 ideas that align to that sub-criteria

Do that for each sub-criteria, and you may end up with something like this:


Now look across those sets of ‘Top 5’ and see which ideas kept appearing. Those ideas are the ones that might be the most ‘valuable’.

So far, so good. However, there is one more nuance to consider.

How we think about prioritisation

The essence of prioritisation is that some things are more important to do now and some things are not. This is a case where some ideas win, and some do not. That is the nature of prioritisation, and you cannot avoid it. Remember, we have limited resources and unlimited desire – something’s gotta give.

Nobody wants to be the person who backed ‘losing’ idea. This is why we end up with diagrams like the one at the top of this page.

The method above gets you some of the way, but it’s still only a guide. There is no algorithm or procedure, that will get us past the simple truth that when it comes to limited resources vs unlimited desires, we have to make hard choices.

That said, the more emotional distance you can create between people and the ideas they have, the easier it is to make these hard choices. See previous posts discussing moving people from my idea to an idea for more.

Another consideration is to help people make a stronger emotional connection to a shared goal such as a purpose, a mission, or a vision. This will allow them to reframe the ideas into a new context and create some objectivity.

Shaping information

Inventions: Raising hard conversations through play

Inventions: Raising hard conversations through play