What is a 9-box grid and why might you find it helpful?

A 9-box grid is a visual tool that is widely used in HR to help facilitate conversations about employee development and succession planning. Employees are mapped against two axes: current performance and future potential. Most good HR systems include integrated nine-box grids that enable a more agile and inclusive approach to talent planning and development.

9-box grid with each box explained

How does it work?

HR and managers work together to assign employees to relevant boxes on the grid based on the two categories. The x-axis represents the employee’s current performance, and the y-axis represents their potential – a prediction of their future performance.

While the conversation needs to be informed, the process is by its nature iterative. Insight into the current performance or future potential of one employee may shift the thinking about another. Discussions about organisational objectives or the competitor landscape could lead to a different perspective on the value of current skill sets or aptitude in the future.

What are the benefits of a 9-box grid?

Allows you to set things up quickly

The great thing about 9-box grids is they are quick to set up and easy to use. Intuitive drag and drop means you can quickly organise and re-organise employees within your talent pools. The graphical layout also makes it simpler to see where you have gaps, so you can put in place appropriate plans to fill them.

Encourages dialogue

As an HR professional, you no doubt understand the difficulties of assessing employees’ performance and evaluating the health of different talent pools within your company so that you can help plan for business continuity and employee growth. How does the business go about rating your employees’ potential? How do you identify who will make a strong future leader, and do you know who is falling behind?

This is where the 9-box grid can help. It’s a simple but powerful tool that serves as a framework for discussion with managers about talent, and encourages important conversations that are unlikely to happen without it. It allows managers to collectively identify the strengths and weaknesses in their talent pool/s, while giving transparency over the state of the talent across the whole company, helping to remove barriers to employee movement.

Gives you a fresh perspective

Because the process of assigning employees to different parts of the grid is collaborative, managers benefit from hearing the opinions of others, so that a more objective assessment of employees’ progress and potential can be made.

Perhaps a manager’s relationship with an employee has biased their assessment of his/her performance… Or an employee demonstrated abilities their manager wasn’t aware of when collaborating on a project with a different team… Having a collection of opinions brings fresh perspectives for everyone involved, allowing for a more informed discussion.

Helps you plan for the future

The process doesn’t stop with a constructive conversation, however. The real value is in how you use the information to improve succession planning and employee career development, so you can ensure continuity and growth, and take your business to the next level.

For example, those employees identified as having high potential, high performance and showing signs of being future leaders, or future stars in their own right, will need to be nurtured so they remain challenged and rewarded. Maybe they’re the ones who will be integral to the success of an upcoming project or fill the shoes of a manager who has left.

Highlights development opportunities or training needs

Some of the weaker players in your cohort, or those who aren’t suited to their current role, can also be highlighted in this process. High potential but low performing employees may need motivating, through a stretch assignment, mentoring or a change in position within the company. Candidates consistently assigned to the low potential and low performance box will need a different strategy and might require further investigation. Would they benefit from training? Are they currently dealing with difficult personal matters?

If you consider dropping employees from the grid altogether, it’s crucial to understand  the implications for their future growth within the company.

What are the downsides to a 9-box grid?

Inaccurate measurements

Not everyone is a fan of the 9-box grid. There are concerns about the validity of measuring ‘potential’ as a category, many considering it to be too closely linked with ‘performance’. After all, it’s rare an employee would measure well for potential whilst their performance is poor, for instance. Because of this, some organisations have replaced potential with other measures, such as agility or aptitude for change. Also, different managers would have different perceptions of what high and low potential means.

HR and managers need to clearly discuss and define how they will measure potential, or other characteristics, from the outset.

Susceptible to bias

Some also worry that assigning employees into categories promotes employee labelling which then becomes difficult to unstick, and managers use these labels as shortcuts when discussing employees. If an employee is assigned to the bottom left corner of the grid, for example, they’re considered a weak employee, and it could be difficult for them to shake this label.

To avoid employees getting pigeonholed, it’s important the 9-box grid is used more as a starting point, and incorporated as part of a more in-depth evaluation process.

HR and managers must establish what they want out of the process before they start, ensure they act upon the discussion generated from the process, and not use the grid for the sake of it.

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