Formats Unpacked: The 2x2 Matrix

How a simple format makes complex decision making easier

Hi All,

I get really excited when someone suggests a format to be unpacked that falls outside of most people’s idea of what a format is (mainly TV shows, online video or radio shows). Don’t get me wrong, I do love the unpacking of TV shows, but part of the fun of doing this is moving away from the centre and out to the edges to see what we can learn there. In the last year we’ve been able to get format insights from jokes, memes and card games. Today we can add a framework to that list

Today’s unpacking comes from the wonderful George Walkley who previously unpacked Lunch With FT. George is an independent consultant working with clients in the creative, media and publishing sectors. You can find him at georgewalkley.com and on Twitter.

Over to George…


What’s it called?

The 2x2 matrix (framework)

What’s the format?

Beloved by MBAs and strategy consultants, the 2x2 matrix is an analytical framework popularised by Bruce Henderson and Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s. Options are plotted from low to high on two axes, creating four possible permutations. If you’ve ever read an airport business bestseller, scrolled through LinkedIn or moved Post-its around a whiteboard in a strategy workshop with your colleagues, the chances are you’ve come across 2x2s. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

At its heart the 2x2 is a really simple, intuitive format. It is endlessly adaptable and repeatable, sketched in seconds on a Powerpoint slide, whiteboard or napkin. In a complex world, a well-designed 2x2 helps to simplify, clarify and cut through to the essential part of a decision. Having to choose only two axes, preferably in tension with one another, is a forcing function to concentrate on the most important variables. And the results are easily understood and communicated.

So, what’s the downside? Henry Mintzberg, a critic of traditional MBAs, writes about strategists on the twin axes of confidence and competence (ironically enough, suggesting a 2x2 matrix for the results). He discusses the phenomenon of the high confidence, low competence individual. In their hands, the indiscriminate use of 2x2s is banal and sometimes downright dangerous. Not every problem can be reduced to two variables, and there’s a fine line between elegant simplicity and simplistic analysis. The 2x2 should be just one of several lenses used to view a problem. Robust and informed discussion, based on a shared understanding of the axes and the dividing lines between low and high, is key to making the exercise valuable. 

Favourite examples:

The classic example of the genre is the one that popularised the format, the Growth Share Matrix, created by Bruce Henderson at BCG to help 1970s conglomerates make sense of their business units. Based on axes of relative market share and market growth, businesses were categorised as Dogs (low share, low growth), Cash Cows (low growth, high share), Question Marks (high growth, low share) and Stars (you get the idea by now). For each quadrant BCG recommended a generic strategy: disposing of Dogs, milking the Cash Cows, investing the proceeds in Stars, and analysing the Question Marks to determine if their future was more likely stellar or canine. As a concept it was reductive, decisive, brought in a fortune in fees for BCG, and would go on to inspire an untold number of similar frameworks.

But my favourite example was conceived decades before the 2x2 became a mainstay of consulting. US General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower evaluated calls on his time on the basis of two axes: urgency and importance. This framework helped him to concentrate on what was urgent and important, delegate what was urgent but unimportant, schedule important but non-urgent tasks, and finally avoid the trivial. It’s simple, clear and useful—everything a good 2x2 should be.

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Thanks George,

I’ve definitely been underusing this matrix. Thanks for reminding me how useful it is.

Perhaps some of you might want to use the 2x2 matrix to help you decide whether you should unpack Taskmaster. It’s such a popular TV format that I’m amazed no one has suggested it. I’d love to read that!

Thanks for reading. I really appreciate you all coming back week after week. Make sure you all follow George on Twitter. He always shares the most interesting jobs.

See you all next week,

Hugh