Navigating the Maze of Opportunity: A Deep Dive into the McKinsey 9-box Matrix

For decades, businesses have grappled with the complex question of resource allocation. Where to invest for maximum return? Which ventures deserve nurturing, and which require a strategic retreat? This is where the McKinsey 9-box matrix emerges as a powerful tool, providing a framework for effective portfolio planning and strategic decision-making.

Developed in the 1970s by McKinsey & Company in collaboration with General Electric (GE), the 9-box matrix offers a visual representation of a business portfolio. It is a two-dimensional grid with nine squares, each representing a strategic position for a business unit (SBU) based on two key criteria: Industry Attractiveness and Business Unit Strength.

Demystifying the Axes:

  • Industry Attractiveness: This axis reflects the overall health and growth potential of the industry in which the SBU operates. Factors considered include market size and growth rate, technological advancements, competition, regulatory environment, and economic conditions. A highly attractive industry signifies strong demand, profitability potential, and limited threats.

  • Business Unit Strength: This axis assesses the competitive advantage and performance of the SBU within its industry. This evaluation considers factors such as market share, profitability, brand recognition, technological capabilities, cost structure, and management expertise. A strong SBU possesses a sustainable competitive advantage, allowing it to outperform rivals and capture a significant market share.

Mapping the Landscape: The Nine Boxes of Strategic Decisions

The nine boxes of the matrix translate the interplay of industry attractiveness and business unit strength into distinct strategic recommendations:

Invest/Grow (High Attractiveness, High Strength): These SBUs are the stars of the portfolio. They operate in thriving industries and possess a dominant market position. The ideal strategy is to invest heavily in these units to fuel further growth through market expansion, product development, and strategic acquisitions.

Hold/Maintain (High Attractiveness, Medium Strength): These are cash cows – profitable SBUs in attractive industries but without a dominant market position. The focus here is to maintain market share and profitability by optimizing operations, controlling costs, and leveraging existing strengths.

Selectivity/Earnings (Medium Attractiveness, High Strength): These SBUs are selective cash cows. Though operating in industries with moderate growth prospects, they hold a strong competitive edge. The strategy involves maximizing profitability through operational efficiency and potentially divesting non-core assets.

Invest/Selectivity (High Attractiveness, Low Strength): These are turnaround candidates. While the industry offers significant potential, the SBU struggles competitively. Investment is necessary for improvement, but selectivity is crucial. Resources should be directed towards addressing weaknesses and capitalizing on the industry’s attractiveness.

Hold/Divest (Medium Attractiveness, Medium Strength): These are “dogs” – SBUs with average performance in average industries. They may generate some cash flow, but their growth potential is limited. A hold strategy may be suitable if the SBU complements other units, but divestment should be seriously considered if better opportunities arise.

Divest (Medium Attractiveness, Low Strength): These SBUs are clear candidates for divestment. They operate in unpromising industries and lack a competitive edge. Divesting these units frees up resources for investment in more promising ventures.

Harvest/Divest (Low Attractiveness, High Strength): Though the SBU itself is strong, the industry offers limited growth prospects. The strategy here is to harvest maximum cash flow through price increases, cost reductions, and asset sales before divesting the unit when its value has been maximized.

Question Mark (Low Attractiveness, Low Strength): These are problem children – SBUs with weak performance in unattractive industries. A thorough evaluation is required to determine their potential. If a turnaround strategy is feasible, resources should be directed towards improvement. Otherwise, divestment is the likely outcome.

The Power and Limitations of the Matrix

The McKinsey 9-box matrix offers a valuable framework for strategic analysis. It promotes a systematic approach to portfolio management, facilitating informed decisions about resource allocation and business unit prioritization.

Here’s why the matrix is a powerful tool:

  • Simplicity and Clarity: The visual representation simplifies complex strategic considerations, fostering clear communication and alignment among stakeholders.

  • Prioritization Tool: It helps identify high-potential SBUs and allocate resources accordingly, ensuring focus on ventures with the greatest chance of success.

  • Portfolio Balancing: The matrix encourages a balanced portfolio with a mix of cash cows, stars, and turnaround candidates, ensuring long-term sustainability.

However, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations of the matrix:

  • Oversimplification: Strategic decisions are often nuanced and may not fit neatly into a single box. Other factors beyond industry attractiveness and business unit strength need consideration.

  • Subjectivity: The evaluation of both axes can be subjective.


Building Your Strategic Roadmap: A 9-Box Matrix Exercise

The 9-box matrix is a powerful tool for strategic decision-making, but applying it effectively requires careful consideration. Here’s an exercise to guide you through the process:

Step 1: Define Your Business Units (SBUs)

  • Identify the individual units or product lines that make up your organization.

  • Each SBU should represent a distinct market or product offering with its own competitors and financial performance.

Step 2: Evaluate Industry Attractiveness

  • Research and gather data on the industries of each SBU.

  • Consider factors like market size and growth rate, technological advancements, competition, regulatory environment, and economic conditions.

  • Assign a rating (High, Medium, or Low) to industry attractiveness for each SBU based on your analysis.

Step 3: Assess Business Unit Strength

  • Evaluate the competitive position of each SBU within its industry.

  • Consider market share, profitability, brand recognition, technological capabilities, cost structure, and management expertise.

  • Assign a rating (High, Medium, or Low) to business unit strength for each SBU.

Step 4: Plot Your SBUs on the Matrix

  • Based on your ratings from Steps 2 and 3, locate each SBU on the 9-box matrix.

  • The X-axis represents Business Unit Strength (High, Medium, Low), and the Y-axis represents Industry Attractiveness (High, Medium, Low).

Step 5: Develop Strategic Recommendations

Step 6: Refine Your Strategy

  • Discuss your findings with stakeholders to gather additional perspectives and refine your strategic recommendations.

  • Consider factors beyond the matrix, such as synergy between SBUs, risk tolerance, and organizational capabilities.

  • Develop a timeline and action plan for implementing your chosen strategies.


  • The 9-box matrix is a starting point for discussion, not a definitive answer. Use your judgment and incorporate additional data as needed.

  • Regularly revisit and update your 9-box matrix as market conditions and business performance change.

By following this exercise, you can leverage the 9-box matrix as a valuable tool to guide your resource allocation, prioritize investments, and navigate the competitive landscape, propelling your business towards a future of sustainable growth and success.

Conclusion: A Compass for Strategic Navigation

The McKinsey 9-box matrix serves as a powerful compass for navigating the complexities of strategic decision-making. Its simple framework fosters clear communication and prioritization within organizations, ensuring resources are directed towards the ventures with the greatest potential for success. By facilitating a balanced portfolio with a mix of cash cows, stars, and turnaround candidates, the matrix promotes long-term sustainability and growth.

However, its effectiveness hinges on careful consideration. While it provides a valuable starting point, it’s crucial to acknowledge its limitations. Strategic decisions are multifaceted, and other factors beyond industry attractiveness and business unit strength may require attention. Additionally, the subjective nature of the evaluations necessitates collaboration and open discussion among stakeholders.

Used judiciously, the 9-box matrix empowers organizations to:

  • Identify hidden gems: Uncover high-potential SBUs within seemingly average industries.

  • Allocate resources strategically: Focus investments on ventures positioned for future success.

  • Prioritize turnaround efforts: Direct resources towards revitalizing struggling SBUs with promising turnaround potential.

  • Identify divestment candidates: Free up resources by strategically exiting non-core or underperforming SBUs.

  • Develop a balanced portfolio: Ensure a healthy mix of growth engines and cash cows for long-term financial stability.

Ultimately, the 9-box matrix serves as a springboard for strategic conversations, not a rigid formula. By fostering a data-driven and collaborative approach to portfolio management, it equips organizations with the tools necessary to navigate the ever-changing business landscape and chart a course towards a prosperous future.

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