In those moments when you’re struggling to make a choice, a decision matrix is the tool you need to identify the best way forward.
What do you do when you have an important decision on your plate?
Do you turn to that always reliable list of pros and cons?
Do you flip a coin?
Ask a Magic 8-Ball?
Pick a number between one and 10?
Put your decision off and silently hope that someone else eventually makes it for you?
Sure, there are plenty of ways to make informed (or, you know, not-so-informed) choices. But, when it comes to considering all of the important factors that are part of your eventual decision, there’s one method that reigns supreme: the decision matrix.
It’s a tactic that goes by many different names. You might have also heard it referred to as Pugh Matrix Analysis, Multi-Attribute Utility Theory, or Grid Analysis.
And while I’ll admit that those fancy monikers make it sound impossibly complicated, once you understand the fundamentals, the decision matrix is actually pretty simple to implement and utilize.
Let’s cover what you need to know to start using this tool to take some of the guesswork out of the decision-making process.
What exactly is a decision matrix?
A decision matrix is a table that helps you to visualize a clear winner between your different options.
To create the matrix, you determine what criteria matters in making your final decision and then also assign a weight to each piece of criteria. This allows you to prioritize the factors that matter most and, as a result, mathematically identify which of your options is the best one.
Is your head spinning?
Did you see the word “mathematically” and immediately write this off as a tool that’s too complex for you? Don’t worry–an example will add a lot of clarity.
Using a decision matrix: a case study
You’re the manager of a small, remote team. You’re planning your annual retreat, when your whole department is able to bond and actually work side-by-side for a few days.
You’re tasked with determining which city your retreat will be held in, and it’s proving to be a challenge.
You want a location that offers plenty to see, do, and experience, but you also don’t want it to be overly costly or too big of a hassle for your team members to travel to.
After chatting with your team and asking for their suggestions, you’ve narrowed down your locations to the following three options:
- New York, New York
- Colorado Springs, Colorado
- Paris, France
Now that you’ve zoned in on these three choices, you decide to use a decision matrix to figure out which city is the best fit for your team’s needs.
How to use a decision matrix: 6 steps to follow
Because a decision matrix helps you consider a variety of different factors, knowing exactly where to get started can feel challenging.
These six steps will walk you through the process of setting up and analyzing your decision matrix in a way that’s straightforward and simple (I promise!).
1. Create your matrix
To start, you need to create the skeleton of your table. Start by labeling your rows with your different choices–in this case, the three cities where you’re considering hosting the retreat.
Next, label the columns with the criteria that matter in your decision. You know that you want to make your selection based on:
- Cost: You have a smaller budget, so you can’t afford a lavish trip for your entire team to a super expensive destination.
- Things to do: Since this is a chance for your team to bond, you want to make sure there are a variety of attractions, sights, and restaurants to occupy your free time.
- Ease of travel: Your team is distributed, which means everybody will need to travel to the destination. You want to pick a place that offers somewhat convenient travel options (so, not a small city with no airport) for everyone on your team.
Those are all great considerations! You’ll use those criteria as your column labels within your table.
Keep in mind that you’ll also need a column for total score and a row for assigned weights. So, make sure to include those in your table right away as well. You’ll end up with something that looks like this:
2. Score your choices
Now that you’ve outlined your options and the factors that play a part in your decision, it’s time to score your options accordingly.
The simplest way to do this is to assign each location a value between zero and five. Marking down a “0” would mean that location rates pretty poorly in that area, while a “5” means that location couldn’t get any better.
Work your way through your table to honestly rate each of your options based on the assigned criteria. After doing so, your decision matrix might look something like this:
3. Assign weights to your criteria
Now you’re getting somewhere! But this still doesn’t help you make a crystal clear decision.
Right now, all of your criteria are equally important. But, if the number one thing you need to be considering is cost due to budgetary decisions, then the scores in that column probably deserve a little more weight than the others, right?
That means it’s time to assign weights to all of our criteria to get a handle on which location scores best in the factors that matter most to you.
You’re going to use a similar scoring system here, using numbers 0-5. Ranking a factor as a “0” means it’s pretty unimportant in regards to your final decision, while a “5” means it’s highly important. By the way, it’s perfectly fine to have two pieces of criteria with the same score.
With all of that in mind, you decide on the following weights for your criteria:
- Cost: 5, because more than anything, you need to stay within your budget.
- Things to do: 2, because you know you and your team will be able to have fun anywhere.
- Ease of travel: 4, because you want to ensure a smooth travel experience for everyone attending.
Now, your decision matrix looks like this:
4. Calculate your weighted scores
Are you ready to do some math? I promise–all this involves is some simple multiplication.
Now that you have your weights, you multiply them by each score of your location in order to get a weighted score (essentially, one that considers the importance of each factor).
Here’s what that looks like:
5. Add the weighted scores
You did the math and you have your weighted scores listed under each criterion for each of your location options. But to get a really clear view of which location comes out on top, you need to get one total score.
To do so, add the weighted scores across the row for each location to get a total and then list those in the “Score” column that you created. When you’ve finished with the math, your table will look like this:
6. Make your choice
All that’s left to do? Look at the totals in your “Score” column and find the highest number. The location with the highest score is your winner.
In this case, you should decide to have your retreat in Colorado Springs, Colorado–which makes sense, since it was the cheapest location by far, and the cost was your primary consideration.
See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?
You can apply this principle to almost any sort of decision at home or at work, not just choosing a location for your team retreat. For example, if you’re trying to decide what the next team sprint should be about, a time tracker like Toggl can be useful for providing data on how long certain tasks take, and how much time a certain project is costing you.
The possibilities are endless!
Do away with decision fatigue
Your day can often feel like one long string of decisions. What to wear, what to eat for lunch, what to prioritize for your team…the list goes on and on. That effort to always find the best way forward can be taxing.
Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex.
Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist who studies decision fatigue and the co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, said the above about decision-making in an article for Business Insider.
That’s the beauty of relying on something like the decision matrix. It considers all of the factors that you deem important and gives you a clear answer about which of your choices stack up the best–so you don’t have to feel overly stressed or worn down about shooting in the dark.
The decision matrix eliminates so much of the confusion, subjectivity, and the inevitable back-and-forth that’s involved in decision-making.
Making choices can be a stressful, if inevitable, part of both your personal and professional life, so the added clarity of a decision matrix is likely much-needed, highly-valued, and very appreciated.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.