The Challenge Matrix

As a Product Coach, I help people learn a wide variety of skills. Almost every day and every client is different.

But there is one recurring theme that comes up no matter the topic. That theme is conflict.

I believe the main success factor behind every great Product Manager is a healthy relationship with conflict. Our relationship with conflict impacts everything we do, from product discovery, to stakeholder management, product ownership, and self improvement. All these skills have a low ceiling if you're not able to recognise and reckon with conflict.

The 3 Key Habits of Conflict

There are 3 key habits I encourage Product Managers to learn:

  1. Examine your conflict

  2. Say it like it is

  3. Take an active position

In this post, I introduce the Challenge Matrix, a tool I designed to help you examine conflict. As it’s the first behaviour in the list, it’s a great place to start.

What is a Challenge Matrix?

A Challenge Matrix shows challenges you wish to overcome, to help you and your product to succeed. The matrix compares these challenges in terms of their importance, and what you are already doing to overcome them.

It looks like this.

Challenge+Matrix.jpg

The closer a challenge is to the top left of the matrix, the bigger the gap between how important you believe the challenge is to overcome, and what you are actually doing to resolve it.

By mapping out our obstacles in this way, it becomes much easier to spot common conflicts, problems you are avoiding, and patterns of how you handle conflict.

The tool does not prescribe any actions. Instead, it invites you to reassess your stance on the most difficult topics. The ultimate aim is to improve your self awareness.

How do I make a Challenge Matrix?

The exercise takes approximately 1 hour.

You need a pen, a timer, some post-its, and somewhere to put them. (A flipchart or a whiteboard are ideal, but a wall is fine too.)

It's best done in a quiet, comfortable environment, without distractions. I encourage you to try it away from your office – or at least in an isolated meeting room – where you won’t worry that someone will be looking over your shoulder. This way, you are less likely to “edit” your thoughts. It’s much more valuable to reflect on the world as you really see it, than the version you might describe to others.

Step 1: Generate Challenges

20190518_172514.jpg

For each set of questions below, take 5 minutes to answer them. You should write 1 challenge/answer per post-it.

As a rule of thumb, more is better. Don't worry if an answer feels irrational, poorly worded, or something you would not admit to colleagues. If you think it, write it down.

If you run out of answers within 5 minutes, then move onto the next category and restart the timer.

Set A: Product Perspective

  • Imagine you are one year into the future, and your Product has become a huge success. What challenges did you overcome in that year, to make that happen?

  • What is the most likely reason why your product could fail?

  • What do customers say about your product behind your back?

Set B: Organisation Perspective

  • What organisational problems are preventing you from succeeding?

  • What are the challenges that your organisation has, but nobody talks about?

  • What struck you as worrying during your first week in your job?

Set C: Your Perspective

  • Imagine you are 3 years into the future, and you are the best Product Manager you could be. What weaknesses did you address, to achieve that?

  • What challenges would you like your line manager to support you more with?

  • What are your biggest obstacles to becoming a better Product Manager or Owner?

Step 2: Rate Importance

For each post-it, assign one of the following levels:

  • Critical. This challenge must be addressed, otherwise me or my product cannot succeed.

  • Very Important. If this challenge is not addressed, my product is significantly less likely to succeed, or I am significantly less likely to succeed.

  • Less Important. If this challenge is not addressed, my product is somewhat less likely to succeed, or I am somewhat less likely to succeed.

If the challenge doesn't matter at all, to you or your product, you can discard the post-it. You can also discard any duplicates.

If you are unsure when deciding between two levels, choose the highest level the post-it matches. For example, if a challenges is critical for you, but less important for the product, you should assign it to critical.

Step 3: Rate Your Position

For every challenge you face, you take a position (or attitude) towards it. Roughly speaking, you can classify your position as either Active or Passive.

You can identify your position with 2 tests. First, consider whether your opinion on the challenge is known to others – in the very least your line manager, or others that can help address the challenge. Secondly, you should assess whether you are doing anything specific to address the challenge.

For each post-it, assign one of the following levels:

  • Active. My opinion on this challenge is known to others and I am doing something specific to address it.

  • Somewhat Passive. My opinion on this challenge is known to others or I am doing something specific to address it. (Not both!)

  • 100% Passive. My position on this challenge is unknown to others and I am not doing anything specific to address it.

If there is nothing you or any of your colleagues could reasonably do to address the challenge, you can discard the post-it.

If you are unsure when deciding between two levels, choose the lowest level the post-it matches. For example, if you feel your opinion is not clearly expressed, or you are trying to address the challenge but with no specific action, you should assign it to somewhat passive.

With each post-it rated by importance and your position, lay them out in a 3x3 matrix, as shown in the first image.

Step 4: Review Your Matrix

Reflect on your Challenge Matrix:

  • Consider challenges towards the top left of the matrix. Are there recurring conflicts which you are passive towards? How does this compare to the challenges you are addressing?

  • What does your matrix tell you about how you handle conflict?

  • Identify which challenges you would like to take a more active position towards. Are there specific actions you can take, to address these challenges?

If you feel it would be useful, you can also share what you found with your line manager or colleagues, as a basis for discussion. (You may need to filter out some sensitive topics first.)

Finally, I recommend to take a photo of your matrix. Then when you repeat the exercise later, you can compare your results to the previous round.

Good luck!

As with any tools, the Challenge Matrix is only a tool. I encourage you to experiment with this how you see fit, learn from the exercise, and build this kind of reflection into your everyday work.

The underlying concept can also be tried in other contexts: whether untangling a specific project, a complicated stakeholder relationship, or even looking beyond the domain of product management.

I love to hear about people using this tool. If you have any feedback, or would like to share your experience, reach out in the comments below, or using my contact form.