Prioritize Important Items with Pairwise Ranking

Posted by Kristin Arnold on October 12, 2023

Pairwise Ranking

Have you ever been paralyzed by the sheer number of “high-priority” items that need to be done?  ALL of them are important – and they all need to be done NOW!

To remove the paralysis, try using the pairwise ranking matrix.  Instead of directly ranking items against each other, it involves a series of comparisons where you decide which item is more important relative to another. It’s a quick way of taking a short list (no more than ten items) and prioritizing them by comparing them to each other.

Here’s how you conduct a pairwise ranking:

  1. Define the Criteria.  Before you begin the pairwise ranking process, it’s crucial to establish clear criteria for evaluation. In a business team setting, these criteria might relate to factors such as:
    • Strategic Importance. How critical is the item to the team’s long-term goals?
    • Urgency. Is there a time-sensitive need for this item?
    • Resource Allocation. How much time, money, and effort will this item require?
    • Alignment with Objectives. Does the item align with the team’s core objectives?
  2. Create a Pairwise Comparison Matrix.  Create a table that lists all the items you want to prioritize on both rows and columns. You can also use digital tools like Trello, Prioritization Matrices, or dedicated software like Pairwise Comparison Method to create your pairwise comparison matrix. The matrix will look something like this:

    • Obviously, you can’t make a comparison to the same item e.g. Item A to Item A, so “grey out” those boxes:
    • Furthermore, once you make a comparison between two items, you’ve done that comparison, so you can “grey out” the redundant boxes:
  1. Make Comparisons. For each pair of items, ask the team members to decide which item is more important or should be prioritized higher according to your established criteria. For example, if you’re comparing Item A and Item B, and you believe Item A is more critical for achieving your team’s objectives, mark it as the winner in the matrix. This will help visualize the overall preferences of the team.
    • Repeat this process for all possible pairs of items:
  2. Calculate Scores.  After completing all the comparisons, calculate the scores for each item based on how many times it was ranked higher. The higher the score, the more important the item. For example:
    • Item A: 2
    • Item B: 1
    • Item C: 0
  3. Prioritize and Take Action.  Now that you have scores for each item, you can prioritize them. In a business team setting, this prioritization can guide resource allocation, project planning, or decision-making. In our example, Item A emerges as the highest priority.

Pairwise ranking is a quick, powerful, and objective method for prioritizing important items. By following these steps and defining clear criteria, team members will engage in constructive discussions, leading to a better understanding of each other’s perspectives.  They will also be able to focus their limited resources on the most important items, driving their teams toward achieving their goals.

Related Articles:

Team Goals are the Glue that Hold a Team Together

Strategies to Make Team Decisions

Ask These 4 Specific Questions to Make a Great Decision

KRISTIN ARNOLD, MBA, CSP, CPF|Master has been facilitating meaningful conversations between executives and managers to make better decisions and achieve extraordinary results for 25+ years. She's a leading authority on moderating panel discussions and passionate about finding the perfect olive to complement a vodka martini.

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