Startup Execution

Enter the Matrix

As a founder or a startup executive, you often address complex topics. Your ability to communicate them clearly and quickly creates fertile environments where output is high and breakthroughs are common. Colleagues, customers and investors are energized and motivated to move forward when they quickly understand your message and can embrace your vision.

Playing Four Square

One of the most effective communication tools is the 2×2 matrix.  Industry analysts often use a 2×2 matrix to communicate concepts, but I continue to be surprised at how rarely I see professionals leverage this very valuable and effective tool. Gartner Group has their Magic Quadrant. Forrester Research has their Wave. Back when I worked in management consulting, I quickly learned to frame up my analysis or my message using a 2×2 (or sometimes, a 3×3 or larger) matrix. As an example, consider the matrix below that captures the basic options for evaluating the evolution of existing IT applications.

Using simple matrices to communicate concepts usually produces the following outcomes:

  • Improves clarity
  • Catalyzes conversations
  • Shortens mean time to consensus (and often minimizes disputes on unclear or debatable matters)
  • Improves productivity
  • Sets the foundation for action

Gartner’s Magic Quadrant has become so pervasive that most business professionals immediately recognize it and strive to land their product or initiative in the upper right quadrant. In the strategy matrix presented above, applications can be graded and mapped to provide a clear, visual representation the plan for each application, as depicted below.

The most effective matrices are characterized by:

  1. Horizontal and vertical axes that capture simple concepts
  2. A simple measurement scale for each axis, where the scoring criteria is clearly documented, easily understood, or easily rationalized
  3. Visual insights that are illuminated when combining the horizontal and vertical axes in a matrix format
  4. Simple one to four word descriptions of each quadrant of the 2×2 matrix

It is also possible to add annotations or other constructs to communicate higher-level  concepts on top of the 2×2 matrix. Here are a few examples that I’ve used in the past:

 

You can also refer to my Uncommonly Good Product Management article for several other examples of effective use of 2×2 matrices.

Upgrading to Tic-Tac-Toe

In some cases, a 3×3 or larger matrix can be used to prioritize a complex list of options. For example, risk management can be a difficult problem. But if you score each threat in terms of its likelihood and impact, then a course of action becomes more clear, as illustrated below.

 

Rubik’s Revenge

Another common but challenging exercise is prioritizing features for your new product. Often times, I see teams going through a brainstorming exercise or a dump of their feature tracking database to produce a large master list of feature requests. Then the next step is to prioritize each feature using a one to five scale, with one being the highest priority. This usually results in a suboptimal distribution where 70% or more of the features scored a one or two, about 20% a three, and less than 10% a four or five — hardly the bell curve distribution that you typically want. The team may have used a structured process that resulted in a plan, but the output is one dimensional, subject to debate, and difficult to deliver. A better process exists. Product managers should grade each feature request in two dimensions: business benefit and technical complexity, as depicted in the 4×4 matrix below.

The above matrix uses a four-point grading system to evaluated each feature request. This results in a seven-point prioritization scale along the diagonals of the matrix. If desired, you can step up to a five-point grading system, which results in a nine-point prioritization scale. This system of prioritizing features is still simple, more thorough, and more defensible. This method also produces more granular priorities with less clustering at the top and a better bell curve distribution. With a better distribution, product teams have fewer priority one features, paving the path for more agile development and faster releases.

Red Pill or Blue?

Startup founders and executives often have revolutionary ideas and visions. I’ve seen companies with great potential fail because they couldn’t sell their vision clearly, quickly, or effectively to potential customers, investors, and employees. In your role as an evangelist, your ability to communicate your vision is critically important. Effective evangelists create a short mean time to clarity, consensus, and action. Hopefully, your ability to Enter The Matrix will help you defeat the agents that battle against your success.