The 2×2 Method

Allie O'Connell ·

In a discussion about prioritization among product managers at Carbon Five, we were in consensus that a 2×2 is a powerful tool in many prioritization scenarios from assessing risks to the product or business to working out the path forward when faced with competing priorities for a product.

As a visualization tool, a 2×2 gets the team on the same page to externalize relative risks or priorities and work through next steps. When things seem murky or like everyone isn’t giving the same weight to particular options, try out a 2×2.

It’s super simple. Just draw a an x- and y-axis, like you’re going to do some middle school math homework.

Assessing Risk:
Using a 2×2 to assess risks is often needed at the start of a new project or if your team finds it difficult to move forward with the product plan you’ve been working towards because there seem to be too many risks. In either case, externalizing those risks will help the team better grapple with which risks to mitigate and how to proceed.

The axises that you’ll measure are Impact and Likelihood.

Then, anchor your 2×2 by providing a point of reference. My colleague, Janet Brunckhorst prefers “Zombie Apocalypse,” and my apocalyptic scenario of choice is, “ We realize we are living in a simulation.”

Whatever you choose, just place that risk in the most extreme high impact and lowest possible likelihood area of the 2×2.

Now, plot out the risks on the 2×2 grid to represent their relative likelihood and impact. It should look something like this:

This will help you discuss which risks to focus on and mitigate, and which to de-prioritize effort towards mitigation.

Prioritizing Features:
Using a 2×2 to work through the priorities of features your team could build works in a very similar way. Here, the x- and y-axis are measuring Effort and Impact.

After plotting out features, it might look something like this:

So what does this mean? How do we know know what priority to slot these into? Identify the high impact, easy effort are of the grid, and segment off the area with a diagonal line. Draw the same angled line (see below) as you make segments moving towards the low impact, high effort segment.

This will allow you to measure the impact and effort to rank the priority of your features:

There can certainly be other reasons to adjust this priority, like getting started on a feature earlier that carries a higher risk due to an integration with at third party service or other unknowns in implementation, but this is good starting point.

Deciding what to test or research with users:
Anytime we are building a product, we are making decisions based on certain assumptions. Especially in the early stages of a product, say working towards launching the first public version of the product, there are so many assumptions we could test through interviews or prototype tests. With limited team size and time, how do you decide which assumptions should be tested first?

Keeping track of the assumptions going into your product as you go is a great practice. I like to keep them alongside a product roadmap so that we can manage priority in one place as we get new information and validate assumptions.

You can map these assumptions on a 2×2 grid in a similar fashion to feature prioritization above, but here we are looking at the level of Confidence the team has in the assumption and the Reach that the assumption had to our user base.

You can use that same angled line to segment the most important to the least important assumptions to vet. Low confidence in the assumption and high user reach will result in something that you should test, while a high confidence in the assumption and low user reach is something that you probably don’t need to validate right now.

Finding a path forward when there are competing priorities:

Another way to utilize a 2×2 is to figure out which features to build next when there are competing business goals. In the example below, we’ve labeled the x- and y-axises for two business goals. On one hand, we want to engage existing users, and on the other hand, we want to attract new users. We plot how many existing users and new users will be impacted by each feature, and then can discuss which features serve one or both goals and to what extent.

Apply the diagonal lines to segment off the area of the 2×2 that impacts both of the goals the most. This may not be the perfect priority for your features, and you may decide through this exercise and discussion that one of the business goals may hold more weight. Evaluating each feature by the two goals will help the team check the relative importance of the goal and get on the same page.

The 2×2 is such a simple, flexible tool. Deciding feature priorities, assessing risks, and reconciling competing business goals can all start here.

Check back soon to see more posts to help you prioritize your project.