Analysis paralysis? Use Excel as a tool to make rapid decisions

Analysis Paralysis (decision matrix)

There are many ways to make decisions using tools in Excel – decision trees, decision modelling with what-if analysis, net present value calculations and so on. These are great tools for decisions where you can model the outcome with numbers, but what if you need to make a decision that is based on subjective criteria like “How fulfilling is this going to be?” or if you just don’t have access to the right data to analyze probabilities and outcomes. A decision matrix could be just what you need…

What is a decision matrix?

A decision matrix is a tool to help you decide between multiple options by scoring them against different criteria. Using a decision matrix you can effectively blast through tough decisions. In this article we cover the following topics:

Watch my 6 minute video that explains how to use our Decision Matrix spreadsheet – you can download a free copy of the spreadsheet on the Decision Matrix Download Page

When should I use a decision matrix?

There are so many decisions that qualify. You can use a decision matrix when you need to consider multiple options, subjective or approximate criteria and/or buy-in from other stakeholders. Several examples where you could use a decision matrix:

  • What job offer do I take?
  • What online business should I set up?
  • What WordPress theme do I buy?
  • Which house should I buy?
  • Should I buy a Mac or a PC?

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Case Study: How to use a decision matrix

Launch Excel Decision Matrix

Screenshot of Launch Excel Decision Matrix (available for download)

A decision matrix can be really useful when deciding what to buy. I used a decision matrix to help me decide what route to take when I wanted to redesign the Launch Excel website. I’ll take you through the steps I followed but first I’ll list the steps involved in the process. Download a copy of the Launch Excel Decision Matrix if you want to follow along while reading.

0. Overview of Steps

To reach a great decision you should follow these steps, they are based on important principles and in my experience I find that they work really well!

  1. brainstorm options
  2. decide suitable criteria
  3. agree relative importance of criteria
  4. score each option
  5. evaluate and take action
  6. follow up

1. Brainstorm options for the Decision

It’s important to brainstorm options right at the start of this process. If done correctly this might actually be the longest step to do and it will separate bad options from good options. This needs to be done in a constructive environment and with the following guidelines in mind:

  • establish your objective and agree the purpose
  • involve the right people
  • check you are asking the right questions
  • generate lots of ideas
  • do some research for each idea is powered by some free software called WordPress and when I first created the site I used the default free theme (you can see a live demo of the 2010 theme by clicking here). The free theme was good but I wanted a better reading experience for you as a visitor to my website, so I decided to redesign the site layout. So my objective was to redesign and my purpose was to create a better reading experience for visitors.

The website is run by me and I have overall creative direction as to how it should look. If there were several people involved in running the site, it would be important to get everyone together to make the decision.

When I started my knowledge of web design was minimal. When knowledge is limited, asking the right questions is very important. Some of the questions I asked were:

  • what makes a website great to use, and what makes a website poor to use?
  • what site structure helps a new visitor to explore the site?
  • how much money am I willing to spend?
  • how much time and effort do I want to put in?
  • will I hire someone to do the redesign or do it myself?

I generated the following 5 options for my website redesign:

  1. stick to the status quo, continue to use the same free WordPress theme
  2. find another free WordPress theme, this would instantly change my site layout at no cost
  3. buy a ready-built WordPress theme, this would instantly change my site layout at some cost
  4. buy a WordPress framework theme, allowing me to restyle the site myself
  5. hire a WordPress developer to do the redesign

I spent a couple of hours trying to find another free theme using Google, but couldn’t quite find the right layout and also figured that there would be significant issues with lack of technical support and possible incompatibility with future releases of WordPress. I checked out a lot of ready-built WordPress themes but again could not find the layout I wanted, and then figured that I wanted flexibility to improve the layout based on future events. Hiring a WordPress developer seemed too costly, and there’s a little bit of geek inside me that said I would really enjoy redesigning the site myself.

After further research I found 4 WordPress framework theme suppliers to choose from:

  1. Woothemes ‘Canvas’
  2. Studiopress ‘Genesis’
  3. DIY Themes ‘Thesis 1.8’
  4. Headway Themes ‘Headway 2.0’

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2. Decide suitable criteria for the Decision

After brainstorming options you need to set out the criteria to decide which option is best. Good criteria will help to differentiate each option, and also meet your original objective and purpose. It is important for the definition of each criteria to be clearly agreed before the next step.

My 7 criteria are defined on the right of my downloadable spreadsheet:

Definitions Table
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3. Agree relative importance of criteria for the Decision

Agree a relative weight for each criteria. In my decision matrix spreadsheet the actual number used in weighting does not matter, it is the relationship between the weights that matters. It helps to test out the weights by expressing them as sentences.

“It is twice as important to have fast page load speed, than it is to have good built-in font support”

If that sounds wrong then it’s time to readjust the relative weights. If you are doing this with other people then you can say the sentences out loud and get feedback from the group. Discussing the relative importance of criteria can be illuminating and also help to build consensus.

You can see the relative weighting I used on my downloadable spreadsheet:

Weighting Columns
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4. Score each option

Once you have listed all options and decided on the criteria weighting, you should work through each criteria and weigh up the options against each other. It helps to make the first column the ‘status quo’ and rank the other options +5 (great) to -5 (terrible) in relation to the status quo. Record the scores in your decision matrix.

Progress arrows
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5. Evaluate and take action on your Decision

The best option is the option with the hightest overall score, calculated by multiplying each score against the weighting of each criteria and adding them all up. Best of all, you now have a defensible document showing how you arrived at your decision considering which criteria were important, how they ranked against each other, and how each option was scored.

Decision Matrix Result

In the image above you can see that the Headway 2.0 theme was my first choice with 21 points, followed by the Thesis 1.8 theme with 16 points.

It’s important to do a final ‘sense check’ by looking at your decision dispassionately and checking your process has been thorough. If you want a great tool to help avoid ‘jumping to conclusions’ you should check out the MindTools article on ‘The Ladder of Inference’ by clicking here.

Once you have your decision, explain it to those affected by it and get it implemented!
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Follow Up: Get feedback on decisions

After making a critical decision it is an important habit to revisit that decision to review whether your initial assumptions were correct. This could even lead to changing your original decision. Two things to be aware of:

– Don’t change your mind too fast
– Don’t be too stubborn either

If you change your mind too quickly you won’t let the full course of events run, and risk being ineffective because you keep switching from one path to another path instead of concentrating on implementation.

If you are too stubborn then you run the risk of living with a poor decision just because you want to be consistent with that original (poor) decision. But if you use the simple decision matrix spreadsheet that I created, you can readily review your original decision with some objectivity, and revisit each criteria and option to see whether there have been any changes since your original decision.
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So how did my decision to use Headway turn out?

The happy result of my decision making process is that I spent $87 on Headway 2.0, and redesigned in two days with pretty much exactly the layout I wanted, with no HTML or PHP coding required!

If you like the site design then you could also look into buying the Headway theme if you own a website and want to redesign it by yourself. Headway’s visual editor is really powerful because it allows someone like me with very little WordPress/HTML/PHP knowledge do a site redesign in a couple of days – all using the simplicity of drag and drop!

Headway Themes — The Drag & Drop WordPress Theme

You can check out the site for Headway Themes here. If you decide to buy the theme through my link I’ll earn a commission, but please know that I am only recommending their WordPress theme because I’m absolutely convinced of its value.

One more thing, the Headway theme makers are going to release v3.0 soon and they say the price will go up when that’s out – so if you get Headway 2.0 now for $87 (personal option) you are entitled to free lifetime upgrades and can upgrade to v3.0 for free (this article was written in October 2011).

Download free decision matrix spreadsheet

Visit the Decision Matrix Download Page to get a copy of our Decision Matrix. This template is made available for personal and commercial use under the Creative Commons License “Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0” so you are free to alter, transform or build upon this work as long as you respect the following terms:

  • Attribution – attribute the work to Launch Excel “Based on a design by Launch Excel (” but not in any way that suggests it is endorsed by Launch Excel
  • Share alike – If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one

Do you have any real-life decision matrix examples in Excel to share?

If you have a decision matrix you built in Excel that you want to share, please put a link here in the comments, or send me your spreadsheets and I will consider adding them to a future blog post, attributing them to you. Please make sure your decision matrix meets these criteria. It must be:

  • informative, clean and visually appealing
  • suitable for the workplace

Please email your examples to Victor:
Email Victor

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When is a decision matrix not suitable?

You should probably use another tool if your decision needs you to evaluate financial outcomes by modelling, or if it contains dependencies such as Event A must happen before Event B can happen. Examples:

  • projecting expected outcomes by assigning probabilities and values to alternate event paths (use a decision tree)
  • determining the return on an investment (net present value or internal rate of return)
  • testing the financial viability of a project (cash flow forecasting)

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What’s next?

We covered the principles you need to know about using a decision matrix to make decisions, and I shared a case study of how I used a decision matrix to decide what premium WordPress theme to buy. In the next article I show you how to use my downloadable spreadsheet template with a 10-minute video.

More Decision Matrix resources:

What is a Pugh Decision Matrix?
Grid Analysis (Decision Tools)
Make an Excel Decision Matrix (macro)
My Decision Matrix (Michael Swanson)
What is a Decision Matrix?

General resources on decision making:

Decision making techniques from MindTools
Eight tools for streamlined decision making
Four ways to make a big decision
Are you being too Consistent?
Overcoming Fear: How to move past uncertainty and do great things

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Victor Chan
Hi I'm Victor. I started Launch Excel to help you use Excel and VBA faster. Thousands of people have learned new skills and increased their effectiveness at work with our help. You can do it too! Also I've personally used Excel lots since 2002. I use it mainly in accounting and finance but I also have a Masters degree in Engineering from Cambridge University. I hope you enjoy the site and tutorials!
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