Comprehensive Guide to Understanding and Using Priority Matrices

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

September 3, 2021 (updated July 25, 2022)

A priority matrix is an essential tool for project selection and prioritization. With this comprehensive guide, you can facilitate their use in your own organization and gain expert advice on implementing them.

Included on this page, you’ll find steps for using a priority matrix, information on how to choose the best prioritization method for your organization, and a downloadable template to get started.

What Is a Priority Matrix?

A priority matrix, also called a prioritization matrix, is a customizable tool used to identify critical tasks or projects. A priority matrix can be a simple chart that compares urgency and importance or a complex grid that analyzes many criteria.

Matrix Complexity Comparison

A priority matrix is most helpful when used to rank a list of potential upcoming projects or tasks in order of importance. By setting your own criteria, you can create and use these matrices to aid in a project selection process that fits the needs of your organization. 

When using a priority matrix, organize the tasks or projects into quadrants that represent the following categories: 

  • Important and urgent
  • Important but not urgent
  • Urgent but not important
  • Not urgent and not important

Doing so allows your team to easily see which tasks they should tackle first.

Why Is a Prioritization Matrix Useful?

A prioritization matrix is a useful tool to help you narrow down multiple project or task options, so you and your stakeholders can identify the highest-priority ideas. Priority matrices also facilitate decision making because they are customizable, simple to work with, and easy to read.

When to Use a Priority Matrix

Use a priority matrix any time that you need to rank a group of projects or tasks by importance. A priority matrix will tell you which tasks are urgent, which to delegate, and which you can complete at leisure.

What Is a Priority Matrix in Project Management?

Priority matrices are primarily used in project management to facilitate the selection of potential projects. In addition, project managers can use matrices to help delegate tasks to their team, create project plans, or map out their daily assignments. 

Priority matrices also create a shareable paper trail for stakeholders, who may not be directly involved in the decision-making process. Access to these records helps to resolve disagreements by avoiding hidden agendas and promoting consensus within a group. When you allow interested parties to review the selection criteria involved in decision making, you increase project visibility and buy-in, which leads to more cohesive teams and more successful ventures.

How to Prioritize Projects with a Priority Matrix

You can take four steps to prioritizing projects with a priority matrix. First, create a list of projects. Next, choose the most important criteria to compare. Then, score each criterion for each project. Finally, analyze and compare the resulting scores. 

  1. Make a List of Potential Projects: Gather input from stakeholders to create a list of projects or tasks that need to be prioritized. 
  2. Choose and Weigh Your Criteria: “Avoid competing priorities to make sure you fulfill essential tasks to the highest standard,” suggests Harriet Chan, Co-Founder of CocoFinder. To ensure your matrix is easy to use and read, limit your prioritization criteria to five items. Weight your criteria based on their relative importance as judged by the members of your selection team. 
  3. Assign Scores to Each Criterion: Assign a numerical value to each criterion for every item on the list. These numbers indicate the level of importance of each criterion; add them together to assign each project a score.
  4. Analyze and Compare Results: Compare the scores of your projects against one another to determine priority. Typically, a project with a higher score indicates a more important project, but be sure to perform a gut check and verify that nothing seems off. If your results do not seem correct, reevaluate your criteria and their weights, then try again.

Priority Levels for Projects

At the most basic level, you can divide projects by high importance and low importance. Many find it helpful to categorize projects further into very high, very low, and moderate importance. You may also find that further comparing projects by urgency presents a clearer picture.

  • High Priority: These projects are critical to the organization.
    • Do: Complete projects that are of high importance and high urgency as soon as possible.
  • Medium Priority: These projects are usually necessary but are not the most important at present.
    • Delegate: Delegate tasks that are of low importance, high urgency to complete them on an appropriate timeline.
    • Schedule: Schedule tasks that are of high importance, low urgency to complete when you are able.
  • Low Priority: These projects are not very important at this time.
    • Delete: Put aside projects that are of low importance and low urgency. You may decide to revisit them later and assess whether the status changes over time.

How to Use a Priority Matrix

Businesses utilize priority matrices for a variety of reasons, including to help delegate tasks, rank potential projects by importance, or even ensure project visibility by documenting the selection process. 

“We follow specific steps to utilize the full potential of the priority matrix. First, we make a list of items that need priority by updating your product backlog. Next, we rank each item by its impact on the business and use the same scale to measure each item on the list by level of effort required. After establishing the items and steps to take, we strategically plot our activities into the appropriate quadrants on the matrix and prioritize, delegate, or deprioritize accordingly,” says Chan.

The following steps outline the method for using a priority matrix to assign project priority:

  1. Choose Projects: Priority matrices are extremely useful for ranking a list of potential projects. By carefully weighting selection criteria, you can ensure that your template-generated list reflects each item’s true value to your company.
  2. Choose Next Tasks: Priority matrices can help organize a project’s schedule. By prioritizing the major to-dos on your list, you help ensure that your business plan timeline is as logical as possible.
  3. Prioritize Items on a List: Use a priority matrix to organize items on a list, such as possible selection criteria or a list of potential job sites. By adjusting your selection criteria or the complexity of your matrix, you can easily prioritize any group of items.
  4. Provide a Reviewable Resource for Stakeholders: Use and store priority matrices for later reference to provide a paper trail of your selection process for interested parties. You may also decide to include completed matrices in reports sent to stakeholders as part of your communication plan.

How Do You Create a Project Priority Matrix?

To create a project priority matrix, you first need to create a list of potential projects. Next, determine your selection criteria and their weights, then input scores for each item. Finally, compare the scores to decide on your next project.

Use the matrix that is best for the job. “A good priority matrix should be easy to use and quick to implement, so it should be as simple as possible,” suggests Faisal Nasim, Director of Exam Papers Plus.

  1. Determine Your Goals: Decide what you want to achieve by using the matrix. Are you choosing a new project or the next task within a project? Are you ranking a list of items by urgency or importance? This will help determine the type of matrix you should use.
  2. Create a List: Consult with stakeholders and compile a comprehensive list of options.
  3. Determine Criteria and Their Weights: “The best criteria to measure are input vs. output. Input can be a measure of the amount of time, resources, or effort needed to complete a task. Output is essentially what a completed project will achieve for your company. Measuring the input against the output of a task will give you its position in the priority matrix,” says Nasim. A simple priority matrix will measure options from low to high importance and low to high urgency, but a more complex matrix might weight each criteria differently.
  4. Determine Each Option’s Position on the Matrix: Use the intersection of each row and column to determine where each item fits. Items that are highly urgent and important will be at the top right of the priority chart, while items that are lowest in urgency and importance will be in the bottom left.
  5. Analyze the Results: The items in the top-right quadrant should be the most important on the list. If something seems off, consider using a more complex matrix to narrow your choices further.
  6. Choose Your Next Project or Task: Look at your most important tasks and delegate or complete them as necessary.

Prioritization Matrix Example

Prioritization Matrix Example

Download Prioritization Matrix Example

Microsoft Excel | Google Sheets | Adobe PDF
 

This template comes with sample matrix data for the daily to-do list for a project manager. You can easily customize it to assist in your own project or task prioritization needs.

For more complex downloadable templates, check out “Free Priority Matrix and Project Prioritization Templates.”

Strengths of Using a Priority Matrix

Organizations choose priority matrices for their ease of use, customization potential, and ability to rank large numbers of diverse tasks. We’ve compiled a list of the major strengths of using a priority matrix below:

  • Ability to Organize Large Numbers of Important Tasks: Many teams find it difficult to prioritize large numbers of tasks without using a prioritization tool. It can be difficult to start seeing items in an important task list as “more important” and “less important.” Priority matrices can be used to further prioritize a list of important tasks so that you can approach them more efficiently.
  • Can Be Easily Updated and Changed: You can easily update criteria, weights, and projects on a matrix. This makes it simple to see how an item’s priority might change over time.
  • Customizable: Priority matrices can be very simple or as complex as needed. You can theoretically compare a limitless number of options and criteria with a large enough matrix; however, the best matrix is the one that most simply addresses the needs of the job.
  • Ease of Use: Even complex priority matrix templates are easy to use. Simply input your list, choose your criteria, and input your scores; the matrix will reveal the results.
  • Many Diverse Use Cases:
    David Attard
    David Attard, Digital Consultant and Web Designer at CollectiveRay, uses priority matrices to create daily schedules. “Each day ends with organizing and writing my priority matrices so that I am ready to hit the ground running the next morning. I start sorting it out according to the response of questions, such as, ‘Which task is the most urgent? Which ones are goal-oriented and will have the most impact?’ And so on. This way, I don't miss out on what's important by mentally struggling to prioritize it.”
  • Project Management Aid: “Priority matrices help team leaders and managers quickly and effectively choose how to delegate work. They help to maximize a team’s output by focusing their efforts on the most profitable tasks,” says Nasim.
  • Removes Bias: A well-designed matrix can help remove personal bias from the selection process. “The prioritization matrix breaks down complex issues and can work objectively with no emotional baggage,” says Chan.
  • Simple to Understand: Priority matrices are very easy to understand at a glance. Their intuitive design makes it easy to identify which options are more or less important based on their position on the chart or the number of their final score.

Weakness of a Priority Matrix

Priority matrices have a few potential weaknesses. You might notice bias in your results or very different projects with tied scores. Always verify that the results of your matrix make intuitive sense to the goals of your business or project.

  • Self-Selection Possible: The outcome of your matrix depends entirely on the self-assessment of criteria and weight. If you build a matrix without an eye for neutrality, the creator’s bias can become apparent.
  • Tied Scores: Wildly different projects can sometimes score the same, even when you carefully select and weight your criteria. In this situation, it is best to create a new matrix with new criteria specific to the two tied options and try again.
  • Rigidity: For some organizations, priority matrices can be too rigid. If your whole team is very small and close-knit, it might not be necessary to spend the time creating matrices to prioritize and assign tasks.
  • Learning Curve: New methods require training. Ensure that new adopters know which tasks fall into which quadrant by training them on your company’s mission. It can also be helpful to explain the logic behind your prioritization criteria so that every team member approaches them the same way.
  • May Result in Critical Project Delays: “The use of priority matrices can sometimes result in important tasks being left until the last minute. By breaking down various projects into their respective ROI, leaders naturally tend toward the most profitable ones. Under poor management, necessary but unrewarding tasks can tend to be forgotten as they forge ahead with the simplest but showiest projects,” warns Nasim. You can find ROI templates in this roundup.

Types of Priority Matrices

Priority matrices can be as complex as you need them to be. The type of matrix and process you select will depend on your use case, the complexity of the items you are comparing, and your familiarity with them.

Eisenhower Matrix Use this if you are prioritizing simple tasks solely based on their importance and urgency.
Kanban Use this if you are concerned with project visibility and the visual mapping of an entire project.
Pairwise Comparison Use this if you need to rank numerous tasks with similar importance quickly.
Scoring Model Use this if you are prioritizing a large number of diverse tasks or projects with numerous selection criteria.
Six Sigma Use this if you need to ensure that decisions are made logically, with the organization’s best practices, and the entire group’s consensus.

 

Eisenhower Matrix vs. the Priority Matrix

An Eisenhower matrix is one of the simplest priority matrices. A two-by-two square separates projects into high importance, low importance, high priority, and low priority. You can use an Eisenhower matrix to quickly rank lists, but it lacks the nuance of more complex matrices.

The Eisenhower matrix provides a defined process for prioritizing a list of items by urgency and importance. It is best suited to smaller tasks and works less well for ranking complex projects. With only two variables, it can become difficult to differentiate the importance of more complex items within the four categories.

To learn more about prioritizing tasks, read the guide to task prioritization.

Priority Matrix Versus Scoring Model

A scoring model is a priority matrix that assigns a numerical score to multiple list items using criteria set and weighted by the user. Decision makers choose from a list of projects using various financial, strategic, and risk assessment criteria.

This is one of the most complex forms of prioritization matrix and is best used to compare complicated concepts, such as whole projects, rather than tasks within projects.

Priority Matrix and Kanban

The Kanban method seeks to ensure project visibility by visualizing every step of the project plan and process. Priority matrices are essential tools to enhance the Kanban method because they map out the entire process of task and project prioritization. 

Kanban emphasizes the visualization of tasks within a project, and priority matrices can help assign high-priority tasks to the best and most available resources. As additional work is presented or completed, new tasks can be assigned and visualized based on priority.

To read more about the Kanban process, check out our guide to Kanban methodology.

Priority Matrix and Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a system developed to improve business processes and ensure that you always adhere to best practices. Priority matrices are an analytical tool used within Six Sigma to ensure that decisions are made logically and with the group consensus.

In Treasure Chest of Six Sigma Growth Methods, Tools, and Best Practices, author Lynne Hambleton discusses three types of priority matrix use cases:

  • Full Analytical Criteria: This is the most complex matrix in the Six Sigma toolbox. Choose up to 10 criteria and weight them to generate a score that helps to prioritize a list of complex variables like projects.
  • Consensus Criteria: This matrix uses multiple team members’ input to generate an average numerical score for each chosen variable. This can help to weight each variable, as higher-scoring items are more important to more group members.
  • Combination Matrix: This matrix functions similarly to a pairwise comparison, but also measures the effect of each variable on one other. Because the matrix includes symbols and arrows to indicate strength of effect and direction, experienced users can create a chart of cause and effect as well as prioritize actions.

Use Priority Matrices to Streamline Project Selection and Execution in Smartsheet

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