Many departments struggle to balance a growing list of new and pending projects while the need for core services continues, often with less funding. Deciding how to prioritize and separate the high-priority projects from lower priority projects can be daunting. Since emotions often run high when making these kinds of decisions, a structured and objective approach can be helpful in achieving consensus and balancing the needs of the department and its customers and stakeholders. Using a prioritization matrix is a proven technique for making tough decisions in an objective way. 

What is a prioritization matrix?

A prioritization matrix is a simple tool that provides a way to sort a diverse set of items into an order of importance. It also identifies their relative importance by deriving a numerical value for the priority of each item. The matrix provides a means for ranking projects (or project requests) based on criteria that are determined to be important. This enables a department to see clearly which projects are the most important to focus on first, and which, if any, could be put on hold or discontinued.

Benefits of a prioritization matrix 

A prioritization matrix supports structured decision-making in the following ways: 

Creating and using a prioritization matrix 

Each department determines its own unique criteria and weights those criteria based on values, strategic direction, organizational goals, available resources, and so on. Projects are then scored and prioritized based on the criteria. Once projects are prioritized and those priorities are reviewed and discussed, the department can evaluate the results to determine funding and resource allocation for the higher priority projects. A final step involves assessing how and when (or if) to fund the lower priority projects in the future if/when more resources become available. Creating and using a prioritization matrix involves five simple steps:

1. Determine your criteria and rating scale

There are two components involved in rating the projects on your “to do” list: criteria for assessing importance, and a rating scale. The first step is to determine the factors you will use to assess the importance of each project. Choose factors that will clearly differentiate important from unimportant projects – these are your criteria. A group of 6-12 criteria is typical. Example criteria might include whether or not the project is a mandate, the value it brings to the customer, etc. Then, for each of your criteria, establish a rating scale to use in assessing how well a particular project satisfies that criteria. To ensure consistent use of the rating scale, provide some details to define how the criteria should be applied.

2. Establish criteria weight

Place your criteria in descending order of importance and assign a weight. Note that when a project is scored, the numeric rating the project is given for particular criteria is multiplied by the criteria’s weight to create a priority score. 

Weight examples: 

3. Create the matrix

List your criteria down the left column and the weight and names of potential projects across the top. 

4. Work in teams to score projects 

Review each project and rate the project on each of the criteria. Next, multiply the rating for each criterion by its weight and record the weighted value. After evaluating the project against all of the criteria, add up the weighted values to determine the project’s total score. If participant numbers allow, it is helpful to work in teams and to arrange for each project to be evaluated by two different teams. Benefits of this approach include:

It’s always a good idea to go through the process with the whole group for a couple of projects to help establish a common understanding of the process and to ensure a good comprehension of the criteria and their meaning. Be sure to also provide resources and links (to your strategic plan, campus priorities, etc.) to enable team members to make an informed evaluation.

5. Discuss results and prioritize your list 

After projects have been scored, it’s time to have a general discussion to compare notes on results and develop a master list of prioritized projects that everyone agrees upon. Note that the rating scores are an excellent way to begin discussions, yet still allow room for adjustment as needed. Remember that the prioritization matrix itself is just a tool, and the people scoring projects are using their best judgment. Upon review, the whole group may decide that a project needs to move up or down in priority, despite the score it received. These types of adjustments are expected and help fine-tune the priority list. As a final step, a department may decide to establish groupings of projects based on natural breaks in scoring, for example high, medium and low priority. Be sure to vet the results with others in the organization, as well as customers and stakeholders.