June 14, 2022
25 min read

What is a 9 Box Model and How to Work With It?

The 9 box model is a widely used tool in talent management. It's been around since the 1970s and seems like it still has a lot to offer in the 21st century. It is also known as a 9 box grid or a 9 box matrix.

In this article, we explain what the 9 box grid is and what it is used for. We also cover the pros and cons of using this method and raise awareness of the potential pitfalls. We summarize a quick list of dos and don'ts when applying the model.

Hopefully, in the end, you'll have a clear idea of how to incorporate this model into your talent management strategy.

Content

  1. What is the 9 box grid model?
  2. Origin of the 9 box grid
  3. How do you score a 9 box grid?
  4. What is the 9 box grid used for?
  5. Advantages of the 9 box grid
  6. Disadvantages of the 9 box grid
  7. The 9 box grid dos and don'ts
  8. Conclusion
  9. FAQ: The 9 Box Model in HR

What is the 9 box grid model?

9 box grid model

The 9 box model is a way to display the distribution of employees in a company based on two criteria on a two-dimensional matrix or grid. These two criteria are usually performance and potential. It allows managers and HR professionals to identify the employees with the highest growth potential and invest wisely in the company's talent pool.

The 9 box grid is a talent management tool with common application in succession planning and performance management. Perhaps the most quoted use is for identifying future leaders and preparing them for the critical roles they would take in the future.

Origin of the 9 box grid

The 9 box model was developed by McKinsey & Company. This management consultancy firm worked extensively with General Electric in the 1970s. It was in that line of work where the model initially emerged.

The remarkable thing about the 9 box matrix is that it was used to compare business units and not employees. Also, the used criteria were different. The model quickly proved to be transferable to other areas. Nowadays, HR professionals apply the grid to identify employee growth potential based on current performance scores.

How do you score a 9 box grid?

There are five main steps for creating a 9 box matrix. They may seem easy at first, but each of them can be a separate progression in itself.

  1. Set up a blank grid.
  2. Evaluate performance, or use already available data.
  3. Evaluate the potential for all employees.
  4. Combine the scores for every individual.
  5. Put the results on the blank grid to draw the big picture.

Let's take a look at all five steps to point out the main things to watch for.

How to stack the nine boxes?

To prepare the grid, you first need to put the two criteria on the X and Y-axis. The most used configuration puts performance on the horizontal and potential on the vertical axis. The next thing is to make three arbitrary descriptive value brackets for both criteria. Traditionally, the model uses Low, Medium, and High. That is how you get the 9 box matrix (3x3 grid).

The main thing here is to have low performers on both criteria on the bottom left. High performers on both criteria end up on the top right corner of the 9 box grid. All other combinations fall somewhere above or below the diagonal.

That said, the 9 box grid doesn't show precise performance scores. It is up to the management or the HR professionals to decide the boundaries between low, mid, and high performance.

Assessing employee performance

Once the blank grid is prepared, we can start with evaluating performance. Usually, you'd have recent data for most employees. Usually, newcomers are the only ones that don't have a performance score, just because it's too early for their first evaluation.

The best thing about evaluation is using your existing assessment system. Also, if you are using performance review software, you'll have all the data you need available in easy to use form. Even something as simple as an exported Excel sheet would work.

Evaluate growth potential

When you are done assessing employee performance, it's time to evaluate the growth potential. This is perhaps the trickiest part of the process. The most pitfalls of using the 9 box grid are at this stage. We discuss this later in the chapters about the pros and cons of the model.

Combining the data on the 9 box grid

Once every employee has scores for both performance and potential, it's time to place them under the applicable categories. Then all you have to do is plot the data on the 9 box grid. This should paint a decent picture of the company's talent pool state.

You can further format the data to visualize the distribution of your workforce on the 9 box grid. For instance, the number of people in every box can be presented in absolute values or percentages. You can color it as a heatmap to show the most common combinations of scores.

What is the 9 box grid used for?

The most common use of the 9 box model is for succession planning. To make a good succession plan, you need to identify suitable candidates for future promotions. To find out, you must look at how well your employees are doing and how likely they are to keep up the good work at a role with more responsibilities.

The 9 box model works well for succession planning because it shows how people score on both criteria. To qualify for the leadership team, one must have moderate performance and moderate to high potential. Ideally, your future leaders would be the top performers with the highest potential. Though such people attract the management's attention for a reason, they are quite rare.

The odds are that most of your employees will fit within the middle box - moderate performers with moderate potential. This is where you would be looking most of the time in your succession planning process. People at the corners are likely to be a minority. Also, there's only one corner that's critical for succession planning.

Once you have identified your potential leaders, it's time to figure out how to prepare them for their future roles. That's why the 9 box grid is also used for workforce planning and investment strategy.

A succession plan would be useless if your MVPs get bored, frustrated, or feel undervalued. High-performing employees must feel rewarded for their contribution if you want them to stick around while you are setting future leadership roles. The 9 box grid indicates where you should invest the most.

Advantages of the 9 box grid

The 9 box model is useful mostly because it relies on two dimensions of employee value. It allows HR leaders to consider a combination of traits in their succession planning process. Here are the top five pros of the 9 box grid:

  1. It is straightforward
  2. It is industry agnostic
  3. It's low in complexity
  4. It's a great visualization tool
  5. It can facilitate growth discussion

Simplicity and ease of use

The 9 box grid is effortless to make. You have only two criteria, with three values each. Combining everything together isn't difficult at all. How you interpret the final result is a totally different question, though. Another important thing to ask is how to help people move from the least desired boxes to those that promise a future.

Works in any organization and industry

The 9 box model works across all industries. Also, it's applicable in all companies that are large enough to offer growth opportunities. Whatever the nature of your business is, performance evaluations are a part of the company's life. There is no reason to avoid a talent management tool that uses the performance scores of your workforce.

Keep things simple and just use your observation

The 9 box grid doesn't require additional complex systems for people management. You can use your existing solution to source performance data. The model doesn't require additional expenses.

Also, assessing potential requires nothing more than observation. If team leaders and managers know their employees, they would just use this knowledge to estimate potential. This makes the model quite cheap but is also a downside, as discussed later.

Great for presenting the state of the talent pool

The 9 box grid gives an overview of the current state of your workforce. That makes it a good starting point for succession planning. It also shows where to invest if you want to improve the overall performance of your workforce.

The fact that you set a couple of employees for future promotion doesn't resolve the problem with the low performers. You should also take adequate measures for the other segments of the grid.

Useful starting point to discuss future growth

The 9 box grid is meant to identify those who have what it takes to contribute to the company's success in the future. It points you to the people you are likely to discuss future growth with. Keep in mind that the model isn't enough to make the future happen. You have to actually carry out a discussion with all potentials to make sure you are aligned on goals and values.

Disadvantages of the 9 box grid

Even though the 9 box grid has compelling advantages, it should be taken with a grain of salt. There are pitfalls you should be aware of and avoid at all costs. Here are the cons of the 9 box matrix:

  1. It limits the explored dimensions
  2. It doesn't reveal complex reasons for low performance
  3. It works with oversimplified categories
  4. It relies on subjective and speculative judgment
  5. It uses potentially confusing categories.

Two dimensions are not enough

The 9 box model shows what categories your people fall into regarding performance and potential. The distribution across these two dimensions says a lot, but not everything. There are other factors to consider, such as values.

Also, an employee might have valuable skills that didn't count for their score. Leadership is a good example of a skill that doesn't get evaluated when someone is low in the hierarchy. When the employee climbs up the ladder, their ability to lead others could be critical to future management roles.

What about the reasons for low performance?

The 9 box grid uses performance scores to divide employees into categories. It doesn't reveal the reasons for low scores, though. These reasons could be diverse and quite complex. The fact that you aggregate the data to summarize it over the 9 box grid doesn't remove this complexity.

Also, the 9 box matrix doesn't explain how someone achieved a high score. Did they cross boundaries along the way? Do their means justify the goal, and how is this affecting the company culture? These answers to these questions are to be found elsewhere.

Create surveys with Effy

To find the answers to all these additional questions, you can utilize a talent management tool that helps with surveys. At Effy.ai, we offer the right tools to compose surveys in minutes. You can trust our library of questionnaires for eNPS surveys, onboarding surveys, exit interviews, engagement, and satisfaction surveys.

You can easily fill the 9 box grid with your people management platform data at no additional cost. If you are not using such an HR platform, or consider a change, check what Effy.ai has to offer.

At Effy, we strive to empower the building of versatile and high-performing teams. Our main goal is to facilitate the growth of innovative companies by making people management painless and hassle-free. Sign up for a free and see for yourself what Effy.ai can do for you.

Oversimplified categories without gray areas

The most difficult thing with the 9 box grid is to decide how to split the scores into the Low, Medium, and High categories. How low is Low? Below 30th percentile, or 50th? Should you consider individual performance relative to the average, or what is enough to produce meaningful results for the company?

Drawing hard lines to define limited categories eliminates gray areas. People with very similar performances may fall on either side of the line just because of where you drew the line. there is potential for misjudgment.

Assessing potential is arbitrary

There's nothing more speculative and arbitrary than assessing potential. It is essentially no different than fortune-telling. Yes, managers might do their best to make an educated guess, but it is still a guess. you may extrapolate based on past performance, but you never know when, how, or why someone may fail at a new critical role.

Piling up responsibilities could be risky. That's why managers should do their best to prepare high potentials for the new roles that await them. It's important to assess potential adequately and make sure you'll be able to harness it when the time is right.

Confusion between performance and potential

As mentioned, managers may dislike the 9 box grid because they don't like speculating about someone's potential. Another pitfall is the frequent confusion between performance and potential.

Someone may think, for instance, that an employee has low potential because they show low performance. In other words, the current value is overwriting the future value, and suddenly, the employee is doomed.

The 9 box grid dos and don'ts

We demonstrated above that the 9 box matrix has its pros and cons. In fact, the potential pitfalls are enough for gigantic and well-established companies like SAP to consider retiring the 9 box grid. We won't go that far. Instead, we prepared a short side-by-side of the dos and don'ts that will ensure good use of the model.

9 Box Grid Dos 9 Box Grid Don’ts
Take the model with a grain of salt. Be aware of the 9 box pitfalls.
Combine the model with other methods and tools. Don't allow it to dictate or automate decisions.
Figure out the reasons for the good/bad results. Don’t forget that results may change.
Use it to identify employee groups that require attention. Do not overlook the low performers without investigating.

Conclusion

We should point out again that it makes sense to use the 9 box grid as a part of a diverse stack of talent management tools. The model has undisputed advantages, but HR professionals should be cautious about the pitfalls of the 9 boxes.

Relying on the 9 box grid alone wouldn't give a complete picture of the company's future potential. However, when used wisely, the model can be a great weapon in succession planning. Also, the fact that the 9 boxes work across companies and industries is perhaps the biggest plus.

FAQ: The 9 Box Model in HR

What is a 9 box discussion?

A 9 box discussion is a discussion about employee performance and growth potential. The discussion is facilitated by the 9 box grid model that divides employees into nine categories based on performance reviews and potential estimates.

Is the 9 box grid still relevant?

Even though the 9 box grid has been around since the 1970s, it still has relevance today. The model is easy to use and works across all industries. Nowadays, it is a standard in succession planning and development strategies.

How does the 9 box model work?

The 9 box grid combines scores for employee performance and employee potential. The combined scores are distributed across 9 categories that form a square matrix. This provides a quick overview of the state of the workforce and suggests where investments are needed.

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