A matrix can help to structure discussions on complex issue: usefully consolidating information and comparing items in a systematic, visual way.

Why? Most issues are complex and it is difficult for a facilitator to structure a serious discussion on them without getting sidetracked. As discussions get more detailed, the big picture can be lost. Matrices can help to ensure a systematic approach, in which all details are covered and the big picture becomes progressively clearer.

When? On any occasion when a complex, multi-dimensional issue arises, or there is a danger that discussions lose coherence. In some cultural contexts, such a logical approach may never be appropriate or useful.

How? A matrix is a table or graph which shows a set of elements across the top and another set of criteria or classifications down the side. Matrices can be constructed on almost any topic. They can be used to represent systematically the wealth of information or knowledge held in the group around a particular issue or topic. Alternatively, they can be given a stronger analytical role, where different elements or items are evaluated as they are entered onto the matrix. 

Matrices can be constructed to compare the value of different items or elements in a preference ranking, by placing the same list of items across the top and side axes of the table and comparing each pair of items. This exercise can then be deepened with analysis of the reasons given for preference of particular items, or simplified with a ranked list of preferences.

Examples from practice: In Bhola Island, Bangladesh, participants in all-women circles developed very detailed matrices about medicinal plants. Small pictures of all the plants identified locally were drawn and laid in a row across the top of the matrix, while all the common local illnesses were represented down the side.  Then a score out of 10 was given for the use of each herb in relation to each illness.  Each time a score was given there would be a debate about the value of the herb concerned, some women giving evidence or testimonies, others challenging them. By the end of the exercise, every woman had learned something new and key issues arose concerning medicinal plants and herbs.  The matrix was further developed by adding new criteria, such as availability, risks and dangers, and ease of preparation.  This type of matrix has also been used in India to analyse the qualities of different varieties of rice and other crops.

In El Salvador, a Reflect group used a matrix to analyse the effectiveness of different government agencies and NGOs working in their community. The names or logos of the different agencies were placed along the top, while criteria by which to judge them, chosen by participants, were placed down the side. The criteria included: level of efficiency; transparency; corruption; responsiveness to complaints; and attitudes to minorities. Each organisation was then judged against each criteria with examples offered in each case. The results and recommendations were shared with the agencies involved.

In Nicaragua, Reflect circles have used preference ranking to analyse local development priorities. Having listed all the different problems faced locally, each was compared to each other problem to determine which was most critical to resolve. One of the great advantages of this approach is that it made explicit the multiple criteria that people use, allowing discussion of the value of different criteria. The result was not a simple preference for one thing but rather a detailed assessment of each. This served as the basis for a second matrix which became a form of feasibility study of possible actions to address the key problems, itemising which were cheap or expensive, urgent or not, dependent on outsiders or not and so on. 

In Bolangir, India, participants track every action they identify as a result of discussions on a matrix, always including details of who will do what, when and at what cost, and tracking not just intended but also unintended outcomes.

Notes:  As with many visual tools, once the group has grasped the basic idea of a matrix, they can structure the discussion for themselves and the facilitator can take a back seat.  It is important to do all matrices on a large scale so that everyone can join in -and to use movable objects, symbols or cards so that new items, categories or criteria can be added and scores adjusted in relation to one another.  The matrix is only transferred to paper once complete.

Other uses of matrices / tables have included:

  • charts to record trends in the violation of different human rights in various communities of El Salvador;
  • a matrix to analyse trends in farming and the interests of different consumers in the UK;
  • a matrix on the diverse powers/responsibilities of different stakeholders in primary schools in Mozambique;
  • the viability of different livelihoods and coping strategies in Malawi.

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.