The two simplest and most powerful tools to identify your top priority

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As an entrepreneur there's two things you do all the time: coming up with an idea and prioritizing your work.

I used to do both in a very unstructured way, often going on a gut feelings with the first thing that came to mind.

As a founder this isn't good enough and when I shared these tools with RC he told me he wished he had known about them years ago when he was starting out. And so did I.

Dump & sort: separate idea generation from evaluation

You might have heard about this mantra if you read anything on brainstorming: keep idea generation and evaluation separated.

The reason is pretty simple: whenever we're trying to think of something the brain goes through a warm-up phase where it slowly let go of the constraints of the previous context and creates space where it can come up with new things. This space grows as new ideas are generated and that's why often your best ideas take a while to surface.

Now, if you imagine the brain trying to expand and you throw it into a new box of evaluation criteria, how can you expect that process to ever work?

For this reason it's so important to separate idea generation from the evaluation phase. By doing this you give space to your brain to free itself and generate new ideas without giving up the much needed assessment.

The dump & sort is an excellent way to put this to practice. As you probably guessed the name mirrors the two phases we've been talking about: the dump represents your idea generation step while the sort represents the evaluation phase.

You can do a dump & sort in whatever way you prefer, digitally, on paper, with lists on one sheet, etc. Personally I'm using post-its and sharpies.

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These are sort of omnipresent in startup circles and perfectly lend themselves to the goal. There are actually very specific benefits to that approach:

  1. the limited size of a post-it forces you to write short sentences so that you keep it brief and to the point
  2. the sharpie (thicker point marker) further makes it difficult to write a lot
  3. working against a wall, the post its written with thicker markers are easier to read from a few feet away and re-arrange during the sort phase.

You can use dump & sort for any kind of idea generation, from persona development, to filling a business model canvas to developing hypothesis and tests.

In all cases you follow the same steps:

  1. set up a timer for the dump phase so that you have a time box (it helps staying focused)
  2. start dumping! ideally the pen should never leave the paper. Your brain is full of stuff so if you aren't writing it's because you're unconsciously evaluating. Stop doing that!
  3. spread all your post-its on some kind of surface so you can see them all
  4. figure out which cards to keep and which ones to throw away

The last step can be really tricky, and that's where the second tool can come to the rescue: the four quadrants decisional matrix.

Covey's decisional matrix: pick your priorities wisely

You've probably seen some variation of this, but it was originally introduced by Stephen Covey and popularized by US president Eisenhower:

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The image should be pretty self explanatory, but the gist of it is:

  • x axis reflects importance and y axis urgency (both from low to high)
  • you want to focus on what's urgent and important
  • you want to schedule what's important but not urgent
  • you want to delegate what's urgent but not important
  • you don't want to do anything that's neither urgent nor important

This is actually a phenomenal tool if you can use it to help you decide what to focus on. It's quick to understand and use so you can just draw it out and get going and will work for teams as well, great way to have a discussion about priorities.

Adapting the matrix for Lean Startup

While in a startup you need to make plenty decisions about prioritization, and therefore can use the matrix above as is, we can also adapt it to help us focus on testing the riskiest part of our business to increase our odds of success.

Draw the same 4 quadrants, but this time instead of important and urgent use unknown and risky.

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There will be things in your business that are risky and unknown like:

  • does nobody care about the problem I'm solving?
  • are the customers I'm solving the problem for willing to pay?

Others may be very risky but not unknown:

  • there are several competitors and the space for disruption is very limited
  • raising money will be difficult in this crunch time and I need cash to grow

Some might be unknown but not risky:

  • you might have not found a good domain name, but likely your name won't matter if nobody has the problem you're trying to solve and not having a name won't stop you from finding out
  • no logo or color scheme, which almost made it in my list of top 4 forms of waste people commit, which might be unknown, but again doesn't really pose a threat to your business compared to other things

And other might just be neither risky nor unknown

  • what I will have for dinner :)

Best bang for the buck: impact / cost variation

There is a second variation that I find very useful and that's the impact/cost one.

Here you are swapping the two axis from important and urgent to impact and cost and it will look like this:

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For example, say that you have two hypothesis that are both risky and unknown. How do you pick? A solution is to look at the impact and cost. Being both very risky the impact on the business is probably the same, but what about the cost? One might be about testing the problem, which you can validate with interviews over the course of a few weeks; the other might require more time and money, say to verify that a piece of technology core to your offering is actually going to work.

In that case you'll end up with one in the high impact/low cost quadrant, which is what you want to go with first, and the other in the high impact/high cost one, which is generally your next step.

You can use this alongside with the other two as a way to think about impact and cost of what you are going to work on.

One trick for a successful Dump & Sort exercise

More often than not when you try to do a dump and sort you'll get stuck on the dump part, namely you'll write an item or two and then your pen will just float in the air indefinitely.

This is a telling sign that you're evaluating items in your head which is the one thing you're not supposed to do.

To counter this just go faster. This seems weird, but actually the faster you're forcing your brain to go, and your hand to move, the less space you leave for your brain to pause and reflect on what you wrote. This is a very common advice to counter the writer's block and it works wonders for this exercise.

If you give yourself 3 minutes you should be able, on average, to put down at least 5 post-its and do 10 in 5 minutes.

A common issue with the Decisional Matrix

Especially when you're doing it for the first time there's a good chance most of your cards will end up in the 1st quadrant, practically leaving you with no priorities.

In those cases first try with a secondary matrix like the impact/cost one explained above.

If that still doesn't leave you with a clear winner, throw away all the other cards and repeat the exercise with the ones in the 1st quadrant. Keep going until you've only got one left there.

What's your favorite tool for focus and prioritization?

Do you have a powerful tool/process that you rely on for brainstorming and prioritizing your work? Tell us in the comment.

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