Eisenhower Matrix

Use this tool when:

  • You want to focus your activities better
  • You want to get better insight into the viability of your Startup Ideas

Overview

Time± 30 minutes
Difficulty2 / 5
People3 - 5
AuthorErik van der Pluijm
License CC BY SA 4.0
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What is it and when should I use it?

Wikipedia describes the origin of this tool as follows: the "Eisenhower Method" stems from a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent." Note that Eisenhower does not claim this insight for his own, but attributes it to an (unnamed) "former college president."

I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

This matrix has been used with great success as a mental model for making better decisions. The split between ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ vs ‘urgent’ and ‘not urgent’ is very powerful and can be used in two very effective ways in the innovation process.

Make better decisions

‘Important’ things or tasks really have an impact. If you don’t do them (because of time pressure for instance), or if you do a bad job on them, this is going to hurt you. ‘Unimportant’ things, on the other hand, are the things that even if you don’t do them won’t matter that much.

Humans are biased to focus on what is urgent, even if it is not important at all. Spending time on unimportant matters however is a waste of time; that time could have been spent on important things – urgent ones, or the ones that are not yet urgent.

In practice what happens in many businesses and startups is that a lot of energy goes to things that are very urgent but not important. Having a half hour meeting on adding an extra hashtag on your next social media post might be a typical example. The interesting thing is that there are or seem to be many more tasks that fall in the ‘unimportant’ category than in the ‘important’ category.

When using the Eisenhower Matrix for decision making, think of the different categories like this:

Tasks or activities that are urgent and important are things that will have a large impact if they are not accomplished or if they are done badly, and can no longer be put off. They have to be done now, or it will be too late. These are the things you should do right away, things that are sometimes quite literally ‘on fire’.

Example That client that requested a proposal a little while ago and called you twice to ask you when it will arrive. Wait too long, and the project will go to your competitor.

Tasks or activities that are important, but not urgent will have a large impact, but you still have time to think about how to approach them. As a startup member or strategic thinker, this is where you should spend your focus. Here, you have room to play, and time to think about the best approach. While they are not urgent yet, they will become urgent at some point – and then you may have limited options.

Example That big change in legislation that will come in six months time. The next big update of your SaaS platform that will enable you to expand your service to a new market.

Tasks or activities that are urgent, but not important are things that seem super pressing right now, but won’t have a really big impact if you don’t get to them. These are the real time sinks, the sources of busy-work in many companies. Eliminating or delegating these tasks will save you a huge amount of time.

Example Having an hour long meeting about whether or not you should post that social media message that supposedly needs to go out today.

Tasks or activities that are neither urgent nor important are things that you should run away from fast. These are also big time sinks that have no positive impact on your business, and they are everywhere.

Example Spending a day gold-plating an edge-case feature that will be used by 1% of your users, writing an extra desk-research report on that potential business development opportunity, thinking about contingency plans for imagined future calamities with very low impact and probability.

As focus is one of the most important factors for the success of a startup, it is super important to filter out the ‘important’ tasks and concentrate on them, dropping or delegating the unimportant tasks. Your startup has limited time and resources, you can’t afford to spend them on the things that have low or no impact.

Still, figuring out how to categorize the tasks on your plate and how to deal with them can be hard, especially in a startup team. Not everyone might agree, and that in itself can be a time sink. This tool helps you get on the same page and focus on what is important. The steps below describe how to use the matrix to categorize your tasks.

Understand your customer’s needs

When you’re vetting potential startup ideas, it is super important to get a clear read on your customer’s needs. What are their real problems? Are they nice-to-haves? Or need-to-haves?

One way to do that can be seen in the Customer Need Canvas, which differentiates latent vs true needs. But sometimes it is not so simple to make that difference.

The Eisenhower Matrix can help here, too. For the different business ideas you are vetting, put the problems your customers face in the matrix.

First, decide if the problems are ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’ for your customers. That means, is solving the problem something that has real impact for that customer? Or is it a nice to have? If it’s not important, or not important enough, then chances are you’re going to have a hard time convincing your customer to spend money on your solution.

Knowing a problem is important for your customer is very good, but there is another factor. Sometimes, a problem can be very impactful and thus important to a customer, but not urgent. This is where some of the ‘latent needs’ for customers live. For instance, we worked on a project for a large pension fund in the Netherlands. From customer interviews and surveys, it was known that their (prospective) customers really thought that having a good pension was super important, and not a nice-to-have. Still, they struggled convincing people to start investing in their pension today. The reason was that for many people, having a good pension is simply not seen as ‘urgent’. They feel they can safely postpone it to later.

Tip! The propensity to choose short-term actions over long-term benefits is a well-known cognitive bias, but there are many more cognitive biases that you should learn about in order to better understand your customers and have a more successful startup.

Understanding that the problem your business idea is solving is something that is ‘urgent’ or ‘not urgent’ for your customers should influence your decision. Does that mean that you should only try to solve ‘urgent, important’ problems? No. But if you do make a different choice, be aware that you have an extra job, either convincing your customers of importance, or convincing them of urgency.

Tip! Not all customers are created equal, and there are often sub-segments of customers that do think the problem is both urgent and important. Finding those customers is something to focus on.

When using the Eisenhower Matrix for vetting startup ideas, think about the categories like this:

Problems that are urgent and important to your customer are things they can’t ignore and feel the impact from. This are things they will probably actively try to solve already, and they will most likely be interested and eager to learn about your solution. Since these customers will be active and vocal, it will probably be easier to find them and to talk to them.

Example We explored a product for a law firm that wanted to go online to help people whose driver’s license was revoked to expedite the process of getting it back. People need their car to go to work, so importance and urgency coincide. The fact that we could easily find search traffic online and were able to get a high conversion rate for our MVP proved this.

Problems that are important, but not urgent are things that your customer might think they ought to do, and they might have taken some steps, such as finding information. They might still be mildly interested to hear your solution, but you should really focus on what is urgent to them, and how you can make them feel more urgency for the problem. This is the case with ‘latent needs’. You’ll need to convince the customer of the urgency.

Example We worked with a large dutch pension fund to figure out a way to convince their prospect customers of the urgency of investing in their pension, something they all said was important, but would only pay out 20-30 years from now.

Problems that are urgent, but not important, are things your customer is probably less interested in, but due to the cognitive biases we humans have they might still respond more actively than with the ‘latent need’ category. This is the category of ‘impulse buys’, upsells, and add-ons. Things you don’t really need, but find yourself shell out for. If your solution is in this category, you’ll need to find a way to convince your customer of the importance of the problem.

Example There is tons of marketing out there that tries to trick you into thinking things are much more important than they really are, using fear, information overload, fear of missing out, and other cognitive biases. Of course, ethics comes into play here big time!

Problems that are neither important nor urgent are the ‘duds’. It is generally very hard to even get people to hear you out on ideas solving problems in this category. People are simply not interested, or they don’t get it. That does not mean it’s a bad idea per se, or even that you should not pursue it; it just means that your job is much harder. Not only do you need to convince people that they have this problem and that it is important to solve it (i.e. if they don’t it has a negative impact on them), but you also have to convince them of the urgency.

Example Sadly, climate change falls in this category for many people. The negative impact of not solving this problem is unclear on a daily basis, the changes are gradual and opaque. The urgency is also not clear – the timescale involved is hard for people to deal with. To get people to start investing in this problem, you’ll need to create more urgency and show the impact it has on timescales that humans can understand.

The steps below will help you use the matrix to to categorize your startup ideas.

Tool Overview

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  1. Urgent & Important This quadrant holds the most impactful tasks or problems. The ones you can’t ignore or postpone, that will have a big impact on your future.

  2. Urgent & Not Important This quadrant holds tasks or problems that don’t have a big impact, but are urgent: you either have to deal with them now, or you won’t have the opportunity

  3. Not Urgent & Important Things and problems that you still have time to think about, but will have a big impact.

  4. Not Urgent & Not Important Things that are neither urgent nor important, they won’t have a big impact and you don’t have to deal with them right now.

Step-by-Step – Decision Making

1 Make a list of tasks and activities

Start by putting together a list of things you want to categorize. For instance, a list of all the tasks and activities your startup has planned for the coming months. Ask each team member to come up with their own list. Write each task or activity on a single sticky note, but don’t stick them on the canvas just yet.

2 Map them on the canvas

Have each team member stick their sticky notes on the canvas, answering two questions:

  • Is it important? (What would happen if we don’t do this?)
  • Is it urgent? (Can we do this later?)

For each new sticky note, have the team member explain why they think it should go on that spot. Don’t have a discussion just now.

Tip! If you have notes that are ‘duplicates’, then either stick them on top of each other or leave them out – the person with the duplicate is allowed to move the sticky note.

3 Silent Refining

Once all the notes are on the board, have the team go over the board and silently, so without discussing, move the sticky notes to where they think they should go. Try to enforce clear decisions, so no ‘in the middle’ stickies! Take 5 minutes to do this. Keep a clear eye out for the sticky notes that are disputed, e.g. they move around more than 2 times. Put these to the side of the board.

4 Finalizing

Chances are, there will be some stickies that everyone agrees on. That’s great, we don’t have to spend more time on those. Then, there are some sticky notes that are on the side, and were disputed. Go over these one by one, and see if you can agree on either importance or urgency. Narrow down the options. Have the proponents of the different viewpoints make their case, and vote.

You should end up with a board that has clear categories for each task or activity. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to define what to do with them:

  • Do them
  • Defer them (Schedule them for later)
  • Delegate them
  • Or Delete them
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The four quadrants for decision making

5 Next Steps

A great way to increase efficiency in planning meetings is to use this canvas, and re-visit it from time to time. Some of the non-urgent things may have become urgent, some of the non-important things may have vanished altogether

Step-by-Step - Vetting Startup Ideas

1 Make a list of customer problems

Start by putting together a list of customer problems. For each of the business ideas you’re vetting, write down the problem you’re solving for your customer. Ask each team member to come up with their own list. Write each task or activity on a single sticky note, but don’t stick them on the canvas just yet.

2 Map them on the canvas

Have each team member stick their sticky notes on the canvas, answering two questions:

  • Is it important? (What would happen if the problem isn’t solved?)
  • Is it urgent? (What would happen if the solution is postponed?)

Tip! Remember to step into the shoes of your customer while doing this! It’s about what is important and urgent for them!

For each new sticky note, have the team member explain why they think it should go on that spot. Don’t have a discussion just now.

Tip! If you have notes that are ‘duplicates’, then either stick them on top of each other or leave them out – the person with the duplicate is allowed to move the sticky note.

3 Silent Refining

Once all the notes are on the board, have the team go over the board and silently, so without discussing, move the sticky notes to where they think they should go. Try to enforce clear decisions, so no ‘in the middle’ stickies! Take 5 minutes to do this. Keep a clear eye out for the sticky notes that are disputed, e.g. they move around more than 2 times. Put these to the side of the board.

4 Finalizing

Chances are, there will be some stickies that everyone agrees on. That’s great, we don’t have to spend more time on those. Then, there are some sticky notes that are on the side, and were disputed. Go over these one by one, and see if you can agree on either importance or urgency. Narrow down the options. Have the proponents of the different viewpoints make their case, and vote.

Tip! Rather than voting, it is even better to find evidence coming from actual customers. Do an exploration experiment and ask them how they feel about these particular problems. Have them tell you if these problems are urgent or important.

You should end up with a board that has clear categories for each business idea. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to define what to do with them:

  • Clear Opportunities
  • Latent Needs
  • Impulse Buy
  • Duds
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The four quadrants when using the matrix to vet startup ideas

5 Next Steps

Combining this with Design Criteria and the Design Criteria Scorecard makes this an even more powerful tool for vetting new startup and innovation ideas.

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