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The Power of The 2x2 Matrix

By Alex Lowy and Phil Hood

Jossey-Bass, 320 pages, $64.95

One of the essential dilemmas in our lives is choosing between what is urgent and what is important.

Years ago, Stephen Covey placed both issues on a 2x2 matrix, giving new light by having us consider the two issues in combination through the resulting rectangle.

Much of our life is spent in the quadrant of low importance and high urgency. Most of us should be spending far more time on matters that have little urgency but high importance.

The 2x2 matrix is about as simple as a chart can be: Just take two factors that have some relationship with one another, assign one the horizontal axis and the other the vertical axis.

But the result can be highly illuminating as you evaluate business strategies, organization structures, marketing options or even the way you spend your day.

Now Toronto consultant Alex Lowy and his Silicon Valley-based partner, Phil Hood, have gathered together 300 such commonly used matrices and present the best 55 in The Power of The 2x2 Matrix.

More than that, they inspire readers to apply what they call "2x2 thinking," looking for revealing solutions to inherent conflicts by seeing both sides of an issue.

"2x2 thinking recognizes the power in exploring competing forces. By intentionally constructing dilemmas, we challenge ourselves to think at a higher logical level," they note. "Although dilemmas rarely feel good, they often contain the seeds of deeper understanding and a superior solution than we are otherwise capable of finding."

Take the snowy, winter night of 1994, when a small group of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce executives were trying to solve an organizational crisis about motivating loan officers in the commercial part of the bank, which was serving about 75,000 small- to medium-sized businesses.

At a critical juncture in the discussion, the authors report, Hubert Saint-Onge, the vice-president of leadership and learning, jumped to the white board and drew a 2x2 matrix.

"Our problem," he began, "is striking a balance between alignment on the one hand and autonomy on the other. Some of our best staff is out of control . . . behaving like cowboys. They need to be reined in. Others have become too comfortable and passive. They act as if they expect the bank to tell them what to do at every moment; they're afraid to make decisions or even take the smallest risk."

To add clarity, as is common with 2x2 matrices, the four quadrants were named.

Low Performance marked loan officers who weren't motivated to take autonomy and couldn't be counted on to assess quality and riskiness of applicants in line with the bank's policies.

Bureaucrats summed up those with high alignment to bank policy but low autonomy.

The Wild West colourfully described those who grabbed all the autonomy they could get but weren't aligned with the bank's goals and practices.

High Performance resulted where the combination was being achieved: high autonomy and high alignment.

With the help of the matrix, the bank now had a way to describe the patterns of behaviour of its loan officers and a description of the key elements of high performance. And, of course, that same tension between alignment and autonomy exists in many organizations, making the matrix transferable.

The authors note that 2x2 thinking transcends traditional either-or thinking. In some cases, as with the CIBC model, it points to a solution that involves both elements being considered.

In others, it describes four options, as in the classic Boston Consulting Group product portfolio matrix -- Dogs, Stars, Problem Children and Cash Cows -- based on market growth and relative market share. The matrix helps to categorize each product a company offers and define the appropriate management strategy.

The collection of matrices is fascinating and it will be hard for a reader not to stumble on a few that help clarify thinking in his or her organization.

Perhaps more important, reading this book prompts you to see things around you in 2x2 form, and to apply the approach routinely.

The book is best read in small doses since, every few pages, the reader has to adapt to a new strategic model, and it can become numbing.

In Addition: WestJet Airlines Ltd. has been a Cinderella story and, in Flight Path (John Wiley, 278 pages, $36.99), Paul Grescoe tells the story without cynicism and with the depth it deserves.

It's a feel-good story of entrepreneurs with a dream and heart; the people they attracted to their cause; and how the public embraced them. About the future, he leaves one sobering quote from co-founder Tim Morgan: "If Air Canada's labour worked for free, absolutely for free, they would still be 25 per cent above our cost."

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