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20th Sep, 2023

Joy Sellars
Joy Sellars
Job Title
Head of HR & Talent Management

As far as performance assessments go, the value of the tried and trusted nine-box grid has never really been in doubt – it gets results after all, so why change it? Created in 1970 by global management consultancy McKinsey as an investment comparison tool for business, it was later adapted for HR purposes and has been the go-to measure of performance ever since, helping leaders around the world with their employee assessments.

Let’s take a closer look at the format of the nine box-grid. Each box in the grid highlights a different level of talent, with future development plans being created for those falling into the ‘top talent’ boxes and performance improvement intervention being implemented for those falling into areas of performance concern.

HR blog Sept 23 > 9 box grid image

Critics see the tool as dated, administrative and impersonal. There are concerns that the boxes ignore the context and circumstances which can affect performance and potential. The thinking is that by plotting employees in this way it is too fixed, unhelpful, and can give employees a negative impression.

It can absolutely be all of these things, but there is a reason it is still being used as the go-to talent management tool for a lot of companies.

So how do we overcome these issues?

In my opinion, if you see the use of the nine-box grid as an administrative and impersonal exercise, this is exactly what it will become. You will ride into this administrative headwind just to get HR off your back, map your employees without any critical thought and then leave it there until you receive another nudge from HR for the next review.

However, if you see it as it is intended, and do not expect it to be the solution to all your talent management woes, it can be an easy tool to give you a real view of the talent within your business. Where I have seen real success with the nine-box grid, managers consistently do the following:

  • Implement an action plan for top talent. We need to stay close to and really understand the career aspirations and motivations of our top talent. Once we know this, we can implement succession, reward and development plans that complement this to help us retain and develop these employees.

  • Implement an action plan where there are performance concerns. If someone has been graded as a performance concern there is a reason for this, so we need to be working with them on their areas of improvement. This can involve a lot closer management, but it is also about understanding what motivates the employee and how we can best set them up for success.

  • Refer to the grid when making future talent decisions. If you have a management training programme with limited spaces, offer these spaces to your top talent first. When you are recruiting a hard-to-fill position, review the grid to identify who is demonstrating potential for a next-level role or sideways move. Using the nine-box grid to inform these decisions not only ensures we are investing in our top talent, but also means we are making more informed and considered decisions that include factors outside of the immediate recruitment need.

  • See it as a fluid document where employees move around. Successful talent managers are not concerned if an employee does not fit neatly into one of the boxes. It may be that the employee sits between two levels of performance, or it may be that they are demonstrating low potential in their current role but the manager believes they have excellent potential in a different area. These are exactly the sorts of scenarios the grid will help bring to the forefront to address – would this individual be better suited elsewhere? Have we got an alternative role in the business which would better set them up for success? Are they a flight risk? Who would be their successor if they moved elsewhere?

  • Review the grid regularly. This follows on well from the point above. Employees will move around the grid at different stages of their career and what is true now may not be true in three months’ time. I have found a twice-yearly assessment to be a sensible balance between keeping the data up to date and allowing time for change, ensuring those conversations remain meaningful and useful. However, if a manager wanted to use their nine-box grid as a live documentation, it will certainly help them make relevant people decisions.

  • Challenge your own biases. Having a calibration stage to the nine-box grid assessment can be really beneficial. It provides senior managers a chance to discuss talent, ask questions, and adjust or validate talent decisions. This not only helps increase awareness of the talent profile but also tests the fairness of any conclusions that have been drawn.

In conclusion

So, is the nine-box grid still a useful tool for talent management? I think it depends on what you think it is able to do for you. Does having all your employees mapped neatly across the grid mean that you have your talent management sorted for another year? Obviously not. But is it a simple tool which can help us to map the talent profile of our workforce and have a conversation about how we can encourage future leaders and stars? Absolutely, and there is a lot of benefit to this.

The nine-box grid is not outdated, but it is not perfect either. It is a tool that can be useful or harmful depending on how it is utilised. In terms of talent management, the key is to use it as a supportive measure, not as a sole or final indicator of talent. Think of it as a starting point for driving multiple conversations to drive progress and get the best out of your workforce.

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