Magic Quadrants in Product Development

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the software world, you bump into what is sometimes called the magic quadrants. You’ll most often see this as an effort/impact activity. I want to share two ways I use this little technique when helping groups begin product development.


If you aren’t familiar with this activity, create an X and Y axis, leaving four quadrants. One axis is effort. The other axis is impact.

Now, as you place ideas where they belong, you get a visualization of all the ideas in relation to these two dimensions.

Is it perfect? No! It does help a group of people explain their ideas and assumptions and pick a starting point.


The first and most obvious way to use one of these quadrants is to get a group of people to put every idea they’ve got out there.

The benefit here is that you can harvest a lot of ideas quickly, and everyone gets a chance to share their idea, which might otherwise go unheard.

So, people place their ideas, briefly discuss each, and then use the quadrant definitions to cull and prioritize quickly. Not sure what that means? 

  • Low-effort/High-impact are considered easy wins
  • High-effort/High-impact are risky and need more investigation
  • The other quadrants are often ignored

Now, the trick with this is not to pick the best idea. The goal of using this little activity is to pick a starting point. You want to leave this activity with a list of ideas ordered from the first to investigate to the last.

From here, the product group can investigate the items in the list to find the one that will yield the best results. That could start with creating a 1-page summary. But let’s now look at how to use the same activity when investigating one idea.

Assumption Mapping

We’ll relabel the axes to Risk/Probability using the same basic activity. Now, we get folks to come up with a list of assumptions they’re making about the product. Naming assumptions is difficult for folks in the beginning.

A helpful way to get folks unstuck is to say, “What has to be true for this product to succeed?”

Put the assumptions up on the map where they belong. Similar to the previous exercise, talk through them, and then use the quadrant they’re in to make a list of assumptions that you need to address immediately.

The high-probability and high risk are the ones that need the most attention and the low-risk, low-probability ones will be at the end.

Equipped with this list, the product folks can go out and try to validate or invalidate these assumptions quickly with interviews, wizard of oz, white gloves, or several other experimental approaches.

One certainty is that the top assumptions that come out of this activity will be the ones that will kill the product if they aren’t validated.

It’s Not Enough

While I like to use this technique with groups because it’s easy to start and helps people sort through lots of information quickly, it is neither foolproof nor strategic.

A weakness in this is that some folks are so familiar with the magic quadrants they’ll put their item where it’s guaranteed a priority. This weakness is obvious because someone else will place the same one in a different spot.

Another weakness is that while it can give you a list of things to look at, those things are isolated from any other context. A classic example here would be to look at creating a loss leader as a part of a larger strategy. Those connections between various opportunities or how one opportunity leads to another is missing in the activity.

You can facilitate discussions about these gaps, which sometimes leads to an interesting shift in the outputs, but this is rare.

The last thing to watch out for is the quadrant that is high/high is often the most unknown. So, while the activity would have you typically cull those or put them at the bottom of the list, it’s better to talk about how certain you are of those placements. The less certain you are, the position in the list should also change. Incredible opportunities and risks hide in the unknown.