9 box grid

9 Box Grid: What Is It And Why Is It Important?

The 9 box grid model is a commonly used method to better understand performance and potential when dealing with talent management and succession planning. In this guide, we’ll explore how it can be effectively used to assist with these processes, as well as its advantages and disadvantages. 

We’ll also consider alternatives such as the performance value matrix and SuccessCircles, which you can use to enhance your results and make the best decisions around leadership and development.

9 box grid
When it comes to performance, business and HR leaders are often faced with these questions

The 9 box grid explained

The 9 box grid is a commonly used tool that pinpoints employee performance and allows leaders to better understand talent management. Each section of the grid represents a key data point for performance management, indicating current performance levels and their potential for growth.

The 9 box grid charts current performance and future potential along its x and y axis respectively. It looks like this:

9 box grid
The 9-Box Grid Model

This grid gives managers and HR leaders an at-a-glance overview of an employee’s current performance and potential. From this, decisions about training and coaching as well as promotions can be better made. The grid can also be applied more broadly, giving quick insights into teams and departments, or specific functions and positions.

It can also be used to track an employee’s improvement over time, both in terms of their level of performance and their ability to improve. As such, the 9 box grid is an iterative system that evolves throughout the lifecycle of an employee and reflects development trends.

The 9 box grid and succession planning

As well as being a great resource for general talent management, the 9 box grid can play a crucial role in succession planning. Succession planning should be a core aspect of business management, yet few companies have a comprehensive and data-driven process to accomplish this task.

The article from Deloitte, The holy grail of effective leadership succession planning, highlights how most organisations often fail to take the succession planning process seriously. After conducting an extensive survey, they found that:

“More often than not, we found that companies were either avoiding succession planning altogether or were taking a dispassionate, process-oriented approach that minimises, or even ignores, the very real impact that it has on the people involved.”

The 9 box grid is one tool that rectifies these issues and gives leaders an easy to interpret visualisation of their employees’ leadership potential. Moreover, as the system can be implemented throughout an organisation, it can help to identify potential leaders who may otherwise be overlooked.

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4 advantages of the 9 box grid

There are several advantages to the 9 box grid method which makes it worthwhile adopting for talent management and succession planning. Let’s take a closer look at four of the main advantages of the 9 box grid method:

9 box grid
The advantages and pitfalls of using the 9-box grid method

1. It’s very easy to implement and understand. 

As an established HR tool, the 9 box grid model is familiar to most people working in HR departments. Its intuitive layout, easy to read results and simple structure leaves no room for misinterpretation. 

Since the values inputted into the 9 box grid require a consensus from managers and HR leaders, there’s little room for misunderstanding. The use of 360-degree feedback can further augment decisions around performance and the potential to make sure the results are as accurate as possible.

2. It identifies the most valuable talent in the company

The intuitive visual nature of the 9 box grid makes it very easy to identify employees with the most potential. Conversely, employees with the most need to improve can also be readily identified. This makes managing resources both for the improvement and development of A-players much more effective.

When making decisions on performance and development, the 9 box grid delivers an overview of the workforce’s collective strengths and weaknesses. Strategies for succession planning can also be put together which understand where the most potential for leadership lies.

3. It encourages open discussion on performance and development

Open and honest conversations between members of leadership teams are essential for crafting an accurate 9 box grid. Everyone involved with a given employee on a day to day basis will have some insights both into their current performance and their ability to learn.

This means that dialogue and consensus are fundamental to the creation of a 9 box grid. This dialogue by its nature is conducted in the spirit of transparency, with all participants striving for clarity. By including a multiplicity of perspectives, the 9 box grid helps create a holistic view of performance and development potential.  

4. It helps with future planning across the company

When business leaders can see clearly where the potential lies, they can invest the time, resources and effort in developing those employees. It can take considerable time to build up potential leaders for leadership positions, and the 9 box grid offers a competitive edge by identifying this potential across the board.

Being able to pick out potential upcoming A-players is also useful for effective talent retention. Long-term development goals and performance-related stretch goals can be assigned to upcoming talent to help them grow within the company. Conversely, employees with lower potential and performance can be assigned personal improvement plans to help bring their talent stack in line with their peers.

Common 9 Box Grid Pitfalls

There are some common pitfalls to the 9 box grid model which need to be understood before implementing the process. 

These pitfalls can include:

  • Reliance on subjective opinions can lead to bias and favouritism. As much as the end results of the 9 box grid process reflect a wide range of opinions, these views are largely subjective. Gathering input from multiple sources is one way to counteract this aspect, but biases and favouritism may still play a part in the decisions made.
  • Objective data measuring performance and potential is lacking. Concepts such as performance level and employee potential are hard to frame in unambiguous terms. Such competencies can be tough to measure in an objective way, and the assessment of these values may become skewed.
  • Employees can be confined to vague labels. Following on from the previous point, the labels used in the 9 box grid can be overly simplistic. The expression “high potential” can fit a broad range of definitions, and in this regard, the model can lack the necessary meat to give real insights into performance.
  • Low ranking employees can easily be discouraged. While those who rank highly on the 9 box grid might be enthused by the results, others can be easily discouraged if they are identified as “low potential” employees. This could easily lead to a further downward spiral in their performance, particularly if they disagree with the outcome. 

The 9 box grid & the performance value matrix

While the 9 box grid can be a valuable tool to assist with succession planning, on its own it has some limitations. Combining this approach with a performance value matrix delivers additional insights into key qualities which every great leader needs.

While the 9 box grid rates performance and potential, the performance value matrix assesses employees across two dimensions: performance and culture values/behavioural alignment. If the 9 box grid shows which employees deliver the best results, the performance value matrix sheds light on how they accomplish this.

Primarily, this means understanding how well they work with others to accomplish their goals. An employee might be a top performer in their team or department, but if they accomplish their ends through nefarious means and are difficult to work with, they won’t be good leaders. 

In its grid form, the performance value matrix is much simpler than the 9 box grid, with performance rated low to high on the y axis, and the behavioural/value-based rating on the x axis. 

For example:

High performer but difficult to work withHigh performer and great to work with
Low performer and difficult to work withLow performer but great to work with

By linking performance level to behavioural aspects, succession planning can be conducted which not only reflects an employee’s ability to deliver results but how well they work with others in doing so.

Using the 9 Box Talent Matrix for Succession Planning

The basic 9 box grid model outlined above can be enhanced with descriptors to make it better suited for succession planning. This means it retains the easy to interpret visualisation of the basic 9 box grid, but adds context relevant to succession planning.

For example:

“A potential star”
Low performer
High potential
“Shows great potential”
Moderate performer
High potential
“An A-player”
High performer
High potential
“Inconsistent employee”
Low performer
Moderate potential
“A core player”
Moderate performer
Moderate potential
“High performer”
High performer
Moderate potential
“A high-risk employee”
Low performer
Low potential
“An average performer”
Moderate performer
Low potential
“A solid performer”
High performer
Low potential

These basic descriptors can be elaborated on as follows:

  • A high-risk employee. With low performance and limited potential, this employee is a candidate for reassignment to a lower level or in the worst-case scenario exiting the company.
  • An average performer. This employee may have reached their career potential and could be a candidate for coaching and other developmental programs.
  • A solid performer. A valuable employee in terms of results delivered but would benefit from the development of soft skills.
  • Inconsistent employee. Has potential for future growth with the relevant coaching and the application of stretch goals.
  • A core player. Requires coaching and people management skills development, but a potential candidate for job enlargement in the future.
  • High performer. The existing role provides an opportunity for growth and development, with strategic thinking a priority.
  • A potential star. A seasoned professional with the capability for an expanded role with some coaching and mentoring requirements.
  • Shows great potential. Performs highly in their role and can reach the next level with appropriate stretch goals. 
  • An A-player. A consistent high performer who solves problems, sees the bigger picture, and is fully motivated to excel.

When mapped alongside the performance value matrix, employees who fit closest to the top-right box in each grid are those with the greatest leadership potential. 

How to create a 9 box grid

There are three main steps to creating a 9 box grid. These are:

1. Assessing employee performance

This step requires assessing performance management and assigning a rating of either low, moderate, or high.

A low rating is based on someone who fails to perform their duties as expected. They also fail to hit their targets and other work-related objectives. Moderate performance means the employee typically meets the requirements of their role, although there may be some lapses. High performance indicates a consistent ability to hit targets, as well as deliver results above and beyond those expected from the role. These employees could be considered as future leaders of the business.

This can be assessed through performance management software and an employee’s ability to hit their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

2. Assessing employee potential

Potential is also measured as low, moderate, or high, although unlike performance this is based more on subjective opinions. As such, this phase should attempt to draw feedback from as wide a range of people as possible. 

When assessing potential, consider:

  • How motivated the employee is
  • What level of expertise they have demonstrated
  • How frequently they have learned news skills
  • How willing they are to take on board coaching and mentoring
  • How proactive they are in taking on new challenges

3. Merging performance and potential into a 3×3 grid

Once the performance and potential categories have been filled for an employee, these can then be charted onto the 9 box grid.

9 box grid alternatives 

The 9 box grid model is a useful tool for talent management and can be a great way to improve succession planning when used with the performance value matrix. 

There are other alternatives to the 9 box grid worth considering as part of a company’s overall strategy of talent management and succession. Let’s take a look at two alternatives you can consider adding to your HR and management toolset.

Team Strengths Grid

The team strength grid is a method for gaining insights into a team’s collective strengths. It shows how well team members communicate while exploring four core domains of leadership talent:

  • Executing
  • Influencing
  • Relationship building
  • Strategic thinking

The Gallup article, Is Your Team Ready for the Team Strengths Grid?, describes it as helping to “discuss the collective talents of a group in a way that honours individuals. It also enables you to break down communication barriers by prompting productive, open dialogue about behaviours and tendencies, team dynamics, partnerships, and team bonds.”

Success Circles

Success Circles is a unique performance management tool that visualises an employee’s competencies in an easy to understand chart. Each segment of the chart represents an aspect of employee ability, including:

  • Development
  • Performance
  • Culture and brand
  • Communication
  • Leadership
9 box grid

These competencies can be assessed over time to illustrate how well an employee is developing in a given field. Based on real-time data, Success Circles can be used to drive development and training to compensate for shortcomings. They can also be used to better understand the distribution of skills throughout the workforce.

When making decisions about succession or promotions, Success Circles can be invaluable. Managers and team leaders can also tie core competencies to awards and recognition programs to ensure they represent a broad spectrum of opinions.

Frequently asked questions

Are 9 box grids outdated?

The 9 box grid method is an easy-to-use method of gaining broad insights into performance and potential. While the information it provides is certainly useful, it should not be used in isolation when making decisions around talent management and succession planning, particularly in a managerial or professional capacity.

Insights into an organisation’s talent pool gained from the 9 box grid model are most effective when augmented with a range of other processes. It is, however, a useful starting point from which further research and feedback can be taken.

How do you complete a 9 box grid?

To complete a 9 box grid:

  • Assess employee performance and rate it as low, moderate, or high
  • Assess employee potential and rate it as low, moderate, or high
  • Merge these ratings onto a 3×3 grid to determine their overall position