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4 Steps to use an effort/value matrix and work more effectively with your team.

4 Steps to use an effort/value matrix and work more effectively with your team.

Software teams today are working hard on a wide variety of interesting, complex, and challenging problems. Being successful is as much about figuring out the right work to do as it is about doing that work right. One of the tools that can help your team do this effectively is the effort/value matrix. An effort/value matrix is simply an adaptation of the urgent/important matrix known as the Eisenhower matrix, which is widely used in decision-making. Whether you’re tasked with developing new features in an app, deciding on your business strategy, trying to hit a goal or KPI, or planning a social media campaign, this method makes it easy to hone in on the right things to spend your time on.

Our team refers to effort/value grids constantly as we improve our suite of products (Subtask, Team.Video, and Plectica). Here is a guide for how to use an effort/value matrix so you can work more effectively with your team on your biggest challenges.

1. Get all ideas on the table

The first thing to do is gather and expose all your available options. This might be the result of a brainstorming session, it might be a list of requests from various customers or stakeholders, it might just be a to-do list you made. The important thing is to put it all into a place where everyone can think explicitly about each of them. Great ideas can come from anywhere—engineers, CEOs, designers, customers, product managers, customer service representatives, sales associates, etc. Bring together whoever has input on the specific problem you’re focused on. You can do this exercise with post-it notes on a whiteboard, or using online software such as Subtask.

2. Get different perspectives and discuss tradeoffs

Next, it’s time to build the effort/value matrix by discussing the costs and tradeoffs associated with each idea. This is another part of the process where it’s important to have a variety of different perspectives in the discussion.

If you’re developing a product roadmap, have an engineer there to speak to the feasibility of an idea, and a product owner to speak to the idea’s value. Other perspectives can help too, depending on the phase you’re in: sales and marketing, business viability, customer usability, legal or financial constraints, etc.

The purpose of bringing these perspectives together is to boil it down to a relative measure of Effort and Value.

Effort may be defined as the estimated time it might take, the relative complexity, or the number of unknowns. Value may be a combination of market size, expected impact on customer usage, or the capacity for it to enable further work on other ideas.

In the course of the team’s discussion, a customer success manager might note that one item was requested frequently from users and an engineer might estimate that it’s a fairly low amount of work to implement. As you have these discussions you can begin positioning each item in the effort value matrix.

It’s ok that estimates are rarely precise. It’s impossible to know whether a new feature will bring in revenue until customers can actually use it; and it’s impossible to know exactly how long it will take to build that feature until your engineers have dug into the code. But by bringing a number of perspectives together for this exercise, your team can greatly reduce the risk that they’re off target on one particular estimate, or over-indexing on a particular piece of the puzzle. This helps to ensure that the effort and value measures you’ve assigned are in the right ballpark relative to each other.

3. Recheck your assumptions

Once you’ve placed each item in the matrix, take stock of how it all looks. Do all the estimates for effort and value feel honest? Often we end up with a matrix where it seems like everything was placed in the easy and valuable quadrant (we all like to be hopeful when we’re estimating).

By doing this exercise in an effort/value matrix, you’re able to easily see this and guard against it. If you only went through a list of tasks one by one to assigned estimates, and never related them spatially on the effort-value matrix, you’d probably never be aware of the bias your team brings to your planning.

It’s important as a team to recheck and question assumptions. Some of those assumptions might be backed by data that’s readily available, other assumptions might be based on experience, and others might just be guesswork. With the effort/value grid in front of you, these important discussions will happen much more readily. Is Feature A really less effort than Feature B? Is Feature C really demanded by users as much as we think? Is there a lot of uncertainty about how to build Feature D?

4. Decide what to focus on.

Once your team has reached a rough consensus on where each item belongs in the effort/value grid, you’ll want to turn that into a plan of action.

Effort/value scores are just one signal you use to decide what to work on. The team’s project leader may decide that it’s beneficial to do a batch of low-effort high-value work, while also exploring one or two high-effort/high-value ideas. Some teams may choose to make this more of a group decision, and do an exercise like dot-voting to see where most of the team believes their effort should go. In other cases, there might be dependencies to suss out that will determine which pieces of work need to come first.

Using your effort/value scores for guidance, you can begin to schedule and allocate the work to be done. If your team uses an Agile Scrum approach, that might mean flagging a batch of work for a sprint, which the team will commit to. As you complete this work, the team can return to the effort/value matrix and reassess whether the remaining work is still positioned appropriately, and decide what to allocate next.

Defining when a project or feature is “done” can often be a challenge. Some teams and leaders may feel obligated to complete every requirement in the list, and sometimes it seems like there’s always more work to do. When you have your work laid out in an effort/value grid it’s easier to draw a line where the costs outweigh the benefits. Helping your team work more efficiently is as much about deciding what the team should not work on as it is about deciding what they should work on.

How Subtask makes it easy to deploy an Effort/Value approach to your workflow management

Using Subtask’s effort/value matrix, you’ll have these valuable signals at your fingertips so you can decide on the right work and achieve your goals faster, with less wasted time and effort.

In Subtask you can collaborate with your team in real-time, or asynchronously on their own time. This means everyone can quickly and easily get into a board and start adding cards for their ideas. You can either do this together in one room, with everyone looking at one screen, or remotely with everyone signed into the same Subtask board. In both cases you’ll see everything that’s added as it happens.

You can configure your priority matrix to have the labels and colors that fit your current needs. For example, you can change your axes and quadrants to urgent vs important, and change the color of each quadrant to highlight what to focus on or avoid.

After you’ve placed your ideas in the effort/value matrix, you can go back to the main list view and sort each column by effort and value so everyone can easily see what to do first. This will place low-effort/high-value items at the top of your list, and high-effort/low-value items at the bottom (with high-value/high-effort, and low-value/low-effort mixed in between)

Try out Subtask’s effort/value matrix for free at www.subtask.co

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