How to use an impact vs. effort matrix for product roadmap alignment

Emerald Nwanne
October 5, 2021
5
Minutes

How often do you come out of a meeting with too many ideas and no clue where to begin? How often do you and your teammates debate the merits of an idea or disagree on what’s most important? How often do you personally struggle to prioritize? Enter the simple yet incredibly effective impact vs. effort matrix.


We’re big fans of utilizing an impact effort matrix to get our team on the same page about goals and actionable next steps. Instead of sitting around and wondering what will provide the most value, we’re able to work together to visually pinpoint what’s most important for our team and our clients.


In this post, we’ll discuss how to use an impact effort matrix, when they are most effective, and how we utilize this tool at WorkPatterns.

What is an impact vs. effort matrix?

An impact effort matrix is a simple yet powerful prioritization tool. It’s designed to help teams get on the same page and prioritize tasks based on what will offer the most impact with the lowest amount of effort.


To set up an impact effort matrix, create four quadrants with a “t” in the middle. Label “Impact” (high-low) on one axis and “Effort” (high-low) on the other axis.


Your four quadrants will be:


  • Low Effort, High Impact


  • High Effort, High Impact


  • Low Effort, Low Impact


  • High Effort, Low Impact


If you are working with your team in person, you can create your impact effort matrix on a large wall that everyone is able to see. If you are a remote team, like us, you’ll need to utilize online tools and screen sharing to make your impact effort data visible to everyone. 


As a team, place your ideas or tasks on the matrix where you believe they belong. What will offer the most impact? How much effort will each idea or task take to complete? It’s okay to have a bit of a healthy debate about where each item should land on the matrix. It’s important to get these conversations out in the open early on to make sure everyone is aligned by the end of the meeting. You don’t want to leave with confusion or uncertainty about your priorities.


Low effort, high impact is the ultimate sweet spot. These are the ultimate wins that should be prioritized first. They take little time/effort to implement, and they bring the most value to your business or project goals.


High effort, high impact is still an important quadrant. Sometimes there’s no way around putting in a lot of effort to get the high impact you’re hoping for. Prioritize these items, but understand the amount of effort that will be involved. Deeply consider these items and avoid having more than one high effort, high impact task on the go at a time.


Low effort, low impact may bring some value to your team. These ideas or tasks won't take long, and they don’t require much effort, but the impact of these minimal efforts won’t be high. Keep these items in mind, especially if you experience a lull in work or have extra time, as they can be accomplished quickly and easily.


High effort, low impact ideas or tasks are not worth your time. These are the tasks that seemed like a good idea at first, but once you thought it through more, you realized these low impact ideas aren’t worth the effort. Make sure your team isn’t wasting their time on high effort, low impact items.


When to use an impact vs. effort matrix

Having a lot of big ideas is great, and ideation sessions are certainly helpful for uncovering new ways to solve problems and improve your processes. The next struggle comes after ideation when you already have a lot of ideas for where to go next. 


Whether making a decision as an entire organization, specific business team, or with clients—how do you get everyone to agree? When you have a lot of minds involved, it’s difficult to find alignment, and it's even more difficult to find that alignment quickly.


An impact vs. effort matrix can help align your team on company priorities. At WorkPatterns, we use this exercise when building our product roadmap to ensure that everyone on the team has a voice in the process. We’ll get into exactly how we utilize the impact effort exercise below.


Impact vs. effort for hybrid teams

One of the biggest benefits of the impact vs. effort exercise is how adaptable it is for a team’s needs. An impact effort matrix is a tool that can be utilized with teams large and small—whether they’re remote, in-person, or hybrid. The exercise may take on a different form for distributed teams, but the benefits are the same.

How WorkPatterns runs the impact vs. effort exercise when we’re in person 

When working in person, we’re able to go back to basics and use a marker and board for an analog approach. This is the traditional way of running an impact effort matrix.


We make sure everyone is able to see the matrix, and we put all of the ideas we are discussing on Post-its. Post-its are also easily visible and simple to move around as we determine where on the matrix they should sit. Sharpies work best for writing on Post-its since pen or pencils are difficult to see, especially in larger groups. 


We don’t have to worry about technology cooperation or utilizing special tools for collaboration when working in person. Because some of the difficulties associated with remote collaboration are eliminated, we’re able to spend more time discussing features and finding clarity as a team.

How WorkPatterns runs the impact vs. effort exercise when we’re remote

While both in-person and remote impact effort matrix sessions require advance planning and a clear meeting agenda, these details are absolutely critical for remote teams. Make sure you have a detailed agenda and that everyone involved knows exactly what to expect. You want people to arrive prepared, knowing how long the session will take, what’s expected of each individual, and what the goals of the session are.


💡 Read our 8 Strategies to improve virtual meeting productivity.


At WorkPatterns, we typically utilize impact vs. effort exercises for making decisions about our product roadmap. We use PRFAQs and distribute those across the team so that everyone is on the same page about what the feature or idea is and how it could come to life. We make sure everyone has a common understanding of what will be discussed. 


It’s important to us that ideas are distributed in advance to reduce surprises and limit the amount of time everyone needs to be taken away from their work for the meeting.


💡 Too many meetings? The good, the bad, and the unnecessary


We nominate a leader to facilitate each session and set a timer for discussion around each idea. This keeps us from letting the session drag on and ensures we don’t spend too much time discussing any one topic. Before the timer is up, we need to make a decision about where each idea should be placed on our matrix.


Use our template spreadsheet for a remote impact vs. effort exercise.


We don’t make final decisions in real-time but rather use this as a guide. The information we gain from this session serves as input from the team. The leader then circles back with final decisions as there are usually considerations outside of everyone’s individual opinion that must be taken into account. 


For our product roadmap decisions, the impact effort matrix isn't the only piece of the puzzle, but it certainly plays an important role. It facilitates a team discussion that gets every individual on the team involved. This is how we gather cross-organizational feedback to ensure our product roadmap reflects the entire team, not just those in charge.


Do you have experience utilizing an impact effort matrix with your team or clients? Reach out by email or on social media to let us know how you utilize this tool and what your strategies are for optimizing this session for remote teams.


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