The 9 Box Grid: A Practitioner’s Guide

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The 9 box grid is a well-known tool for talent management and succession planning. In this practitioner’s guide, we will explain each box in the 9 box grid, talent management action steps per category, and how this framework can be used in Excel for advanced reporting.

Contents
What is the 9 box grid? A definition
Creating a 9 box grid
The 9 box grid explained
9 box grid talent management
9 box grid for succession planning
9 box grid Excel template
Critique of the 9 box grid
Wrap-up
FAQ

What is the 9 box grid? A definition

The 9 box grid is a well-known talent management tool in which employees are divided into nine groups, based on their performance and potential.

When assessing employee performance, managers often pay attention to two things. First, how well they perform today, and second, how well they are likely to perform in the future (i.e. their growth potential). 

For example, hardworking employees who do well in their role but have little growth potential are great to have in your team, as well as Allstars who perform well and have great potential. However, low-performing employees with low potential will require a lot of management attention and are unlikely to improve. These require a different approach.

The 9-box grid provides a framework that helps to manage all employees in an organization. In the next sections, we will explore how to assess performance and potential, after which we will explain how the 9-box grid can be used as a performance management tool.

9 box grid

Creating a 9 Box Grid

When we go about creating a 9-box grid, we go through three steps. Assessing performance, assessing potential, and bringing it together.

Step 1. Assessing Performance

The nine-box consists of three performance categories: low, moderate, and high. During their performance appraisal, employees are scored on this performance scale.

There are many different ways to score performance and each organization has different nuances. As an example, we propose the following structure:

  • Low performance. Employee does not match the requirements of their job and fails their individual targets.
  • Moderate performance. Employee partially matches the requirements of their job and their individual targets.
  • High performance. Employee fully meets the requirements of their job and their individual targets.

The advantage of this approach is that it sticks to the job requirements as defined in the organization’s job structure, and it relates to the person’s targets. Some organizations may have less defined job structures and work with more personal targets – in that case, more emphasis can be put on assessing target achievement.

Some authors propose the use of a four-point scale. Managers usually dislike giving negative feedback. A three-point scale makes it very easy to put someone in a ‘moderate performance’ category even though objectively they should have been categorized as ‘low performance’. A four-point scale forces the manager to make a more accurate choice (either above or below average).

Step 2. Assessing Potential

The other axis of the 9 box grid is potential. Potential should also be scored during the performance appraisal and often falls into the following categories.

  • Low potential | working at full potential. Employee is working at full potential and is not expected to improve, either because they are at maximum capacity or because of a lack of motivation. 
  • Moderate potential | develop in current role. Employee has the potential to further develop within their current role. This can be in terms of performance, but also in terms of expertise. 
  • High potential | eligible for promotion. Employee is eligible for promotion, either immediately, or within two to three years. 

The benefit of communicating that someone is at ‘full potential’ rather than at ‘low potential’ is that the former is less discouraging. We do want people to have a growth mindset and associate extra effort with improvements in performance so there is some tact required from the manager when it comes to communicating this. For this reason, some companies decide not to communicate this potential score to employees.

Similarly, employees who are eligible for promotion should be careful in how this is communicated. There may not be any senior-level job openings that are required to fulfill this. 

There is some correlation between performance and potential but there are cases in which someone who has low performance may be eligible for a promotion in 2-3 years. Take a management trainee fresh from university. This person scores high on capacity tests but has very little work experience. They may be low performance but have such great potential that they are expected to grow fast enough to be promotable in 2-3 years.

Some companies split up promotability and potential into two separate metrics, where potential is the growth potential of the employee, while the time until the next promotion is an indication of when a person is ready to be promoted.

Step 3. Bringing it together

The next step is to plot performance and potential on a 3×3 grid, resulting in the 9 box grid. The brilliance of this grid is that for each box in the grid, different talent management techniques can be used.

The 9 box grid explained

Let’s go over the different categories in the 9 box grid step by step and look at how our talent management policies will differ per step.

Bad hires

9 box grid - bad hires

In the bottom left corner of the 9 box grid, there are the employees who score low on performance and low on potentials. There are different names for them, which include talent risk, bad hire, and icebergs. Some even go as far as labeling them as ‘useless workers’ who need to be ‘fired immediately’. 

I prefer the term bad hires – you should not have hired these people in the first place but now that you have, you need to deal with them quickly but fairly.

If these bad hires stay too long, they will become icebergs, threatening the viability of your organization. This is because investing in these employees will take away time, money, and other resources from employees with more potential to grow. Their work quality will also set lower standards for colleagues, who will spend more time on cleaning up the mess of bad performing colleagues instead of adding value to the organization.

Action plan

  1. Identify personal roadblocks that may cause the low performance and lack of growth. However, be careful to not over-invest in these people as that would be unfair to the rest of the employees who do perform well.
  2. Sit with the individual to see if there is a more appropriate assignment where their skills are better utilized.
  3. If the first two options don’t bring quick wins, you should create an exit plan together where you help the person find a role that better suits their skills outside of your organization.

If bad hires are a common phenomenon in your organization, review your talent acquisition and your selection process.

Up or out

9 box grid - up or out

The next category in the 9 box grid is the up or out category. They include the medium performers with low potentials (up or out grinders) and the medium potentials with low performance (up or out dilemmas).

The grinders are medium performers but they do a good enough job to not fire them. This makes them a challenging group. They are low potentials so investing time and money in training them will not pay off. The best approach is to create a personal improvement plan. With the creation of this plan, you emphasize that their performance is mediocre, you help them understand where their points of improvement are, and you give them the opportunity to work on it. If this is not paying off and they are not moving into the high-performance group, you will have to make a difficult decision, hence: up or out.

The dilemmas have some potential to be great but they are not performing. Here the question is why they are not performing. Here you go through the same process as before and try to identify what causes their mediocre performance. Are they new hires and did they have a bad onboarding experience, or maybe they don’t understand what is expected from them? As an intervention, you can enroll them in peer coaching or other mentoring programs. If this is not working and they are not progressing into a higher performance category, you will have to make a difficult decision.

Action plan

  1. Create a personal improvement plan by going over personal roadblocks and skills required for the role that need to be worked on by the employee. Provide measurable expectations and clearly define what good performance will look like. The employee should clearly know what is expected of them.
  2. Check in every month and evaluate progress on the plan. Always document these meetings well as this will help you make a better decision and the employee is likely to benefit from a structured plan and feedback. 
  3. If performance does not improve within 6 months to a year, you should create an exit plan together where you help the person find a role that better suits their need outside of your organization.

Workhorses and dysfunctional geniuses

9 box grid - workhorses

In the top bottom right corner and top left corner, we find people who excel in only one element in the 9 box.

The workhorses score high in performance but low in growth potential. They are the ones who you should take care of in your organization. They perform well and have a good work mentality. However, they don’t have much potential for growth. This means that you should keep them happy and reward them but be careful of over-rewarding them. This will create a golden cage – something we’ve seen in the global banking sector. People sat comfortably in their role and had no incentive to switch jobs and develop themselves further, making them susceptible to recent process automation and digitization of banking processes.

The difficulty with workhorses is that in today’s world their work is bound to change at some point, and they may not be able to grow with their role. Imagine someone in the ‘90s who was great at their job but didn’t want to learn how to operate a computer… Some would argue that a growth mindset is key to being a good employee in today’s world – and they would have a point.

Also, don’t promote these people to roles with extra responsibility. This would invoke the Peter principle, first identified by Dr. Laurence J. Peter. According to Peter, “every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. If someone performs well but has little growth potential, keep them happy and in their current role.

Action plan

  1. Keep workhorses happy
  2. Analyze how their work will change in the future and help them prepare in so far as possible.
  3. Raise salaries nominally but be careful with substantial raises and bonuses. Do not promote.

The dysfunctional geniuses are on the other end of the spectrum. They score high in potential but low in performance. An example could be a management trainee from a prestigious university. They haven’t learned the ropes yet but they are eager to learn. Here it is key to continuously track their performance – they should grow and increase their performance rapidly.

Action plan

  1. Give the dysfunctional genius time to develop but monitor their performance. You are not only looking for improvements but for stable, solid performance. Keep in mind that it is easy to improve if performance is bad; if they are high in potential, they should be able to perform at a medium to high level within six to twelve months.
  2. Communicate clear expectations for their current role so they know what is expected of them.
  3. Communicate that you believe in their potential but also that they should improve their current performance.
  4. If they still score low in performance a year onward, you should create an exit plan together where you help the person find a role that better suits their skills outside of your organization.

Future stars

9 box grid - future stars

The next three groups we labeled as ‘future stars’. They already make up the core of your workforce while also having the potential to grow into more advanced roles.

Your high potentials score high in potential and average on performance. Oftentimes, this is because they haven’t had time to fully grow in the role yet. The priority here is to move them to the right in the 9-box grid so they are in the top-right corner. The approach and action plan is similar to your core players.

Your core players are the ones who are reliable performers and who also have the potential to grow further in their current roles. Your main performance management priority is to bring these people to the right of the 9-box grid, where they score high on performance. The steps here are similar to those for your high potentials.

Action steps

  1. Ensure that expectations and role requirements are clear.
  2. Give juniors in new roles the time to develop their performance to the highest level
  3. Consistently praise accomplishments, good performance, and initiatives that help to advance organizational goals. Also, monitor their performance and have regular sit-downs to ensure that they are still happy in their role.
  4. Expose them to short-term job rotation schemes to expose them to other experiences that will help them to perform better or job enlargement by adding activities that fit the employee.
  5. Enable them with peer coaching by a high-performing employee or professional coaching to solve any personal or professional issues that hold the person back (performance barriers).
  6. Provide these professionals with classroom training and on-the-job learning opportunities that help them develop the skills that they are good at or bring skills that hold them back to a higher level.

Your high performers are already in a good place. They contribute to your organization so the key strategy here is to keep them happy and engaged while ensuring that they will be up for the job not just now but also for years to come. If the high performer is ambitious and looking to move upward in the organization, you will want to improve their potential with different interventions.

Action steps

  1. Keep high performers happy and engaged. Regularly check in with them and appreciate the work they do.
  2. Not everyone needs to be a star. If your high performer is happy in their current role and does not want a promotion or extra responsibility, that is also a great outcome. It is not feasible to promote the entire organization every few years so this may be a preferred outcome.
  3. Give them time to grow. If someone is not yet at full potential, it may mean that they need to grow more into their current role before they can move on to the next.
  4. Leverage techniques like job rotation and give them challenging assignments to expose them to different parts of the business. This will build their business acumen and prepare them for a broader leadership role.
  5. Find them a mentor who can help them grow and fulfill their ambition and provide training (and upskilling) opportunities.

Stars

9 box grid - stars

The stars are your high performers who are also capable to take on new roles. These are your A-players and most valuable employees. They also play a critical role in succession planning.

Action plan

  1. Give your stars challenging assignments – they are the most likely of all your employees to pull it off. Examples are important internal projects, turnaround projects, or more external opportunities in start-ups or spin-off companies.
  2. Check-in with them regularly and assess if they are still happy in their current role. Ensure that you spot early signs of dissatisfaction. Praise them lavishly and ensure that they feel appreciated for the contributions they make to the company.
  3. Provide mentorship with more senior members of the organization
  4. Create networking opportunities with other stars and with senior members of the organization. These opportunities help to build a network between your top performers and your senior leadership.
  5. If they are interested in it, roles in external boards and committees could incentivize them, raise their public profile, and provide an interesting challenge and networking opportunity for them.
  6. Reward them and ensure that they receive competitive compensation. These employees contribute the most to your organization and should be rewarded accordingly.

9 box grid talent management

In the previous section, we have explained how 9 box grid talent management can be applied. One of the key advantages of the 9 box grid is that it makes talent investment decisions easier. 

Select International, an employee screening company, offers an interesting perspective. They propose that your total talent management and development budget should be allocated based on one’s position in the 9 box grid.

9 box grid talent management

If you had to invest $100, you should divide it among the different talent categories as is shown in the figure above. Bad hires who occupy the left bottom corner should be invested in the least, while the stars in the right top corner should get the most resources. 

This also makes sense from a resource allocation and strategic perspective – as a business you will want to invest in the (human) resources that provide the largest return and that create the biggest competitive advantage. Investing in bad hires would take away resources from good and top performers.

This does mean that not everyone is equal – a message that is not appreciated by all HR professionals. We must accept that some people fit our company culture better than others, and not everyone is equally suited for the same role.

9 box grid for succession planning

In a similar vein, the 9 box grid can be used for succession planning as well. Succession planning should focus on your stars, who score high in performance and high in potential. These are the employees who will build the future of your organization.

We dive into this topic in much more detail in our full guide on succession planning.

The 9 box grid is a tool that helps in the identification of leadership talent. The leadership talent is then groomed for more senior leadership positions through leadership development, coaching, mentoring, regular 360-degree feedback, and other feedback methods.

The stars are the key employees in the succession matrix, where critical roles are mapped and different top employees are mapped in terms of their suitability for a role. When these roles become vacant, it means that there is talent ready to fill these newly opened roles.

9 Box grid Excel template

In our HR data analyst course, we take an employee database and put them into a performance management grid. Although it is a great exercise to train your Excel skills, we do recommend the use of specialized HR performance management software that has this function integrated. However, for advanced reporting Excel may still be a good tool.

In this overview, you see the employee database on the left (containing 3143 employees) and their respective potential and performance scores. The pivot table in the bottom right corner shows the performance – potential distribution and the bubble chart on the top right shows the distribution with the size of the bubbles representing the size of the population.

9 box grid Excel visualization

This Excel visualization enables additional visual encoding. For example, if you were the plot development budget on the 9 box grid and represent this by the color value of the bubbles, the overview could look like the following picture.

9 box performance grid

As you can see, there are some discrepancies in how budget is allocated. Low-performing employees with medium potential are given more budget per person compared to low-performing employees with high potential. This should be the other way around.

You can download the full 9 box grid Excel template with these figures here (note: the download starts immediately).

Critique of the 9 box grid

Although the 9 box grid provides a clear way of managing talent and performance, it is not undisputed.

Its biggest shortcoming is arguably its connection to traditional performance management, characterized by a once-a-year, subjective rating by one’s manager. Many companies, including Accenture and Deloitte, have moved away from annual performance reviews, opting for continuous feedback instead. This provides more opportunities to improve performance as well as more data points to accurately assess performance.

We highly recommend measuring performance using as many objective data points as possible. Continuous feedback loops, as well as goal setting systems such as SMART goals or objectives and key results (OKRs), can serve a purpose here.

Additionally, transparency is key. Without clear communication about talent management practices, it can miss its goal and may result in a “rank and yank” system where employees are ranked against each other and the lowest end of the ranking being terminated (the yank).

This is not the intention of the 9 box grid. Instead, the 9 box grid should be leveraged to develop and cultivate talent, and through talent build a sustainable competitive advantage for the organization. 

Wrap-up

The 9 box grid can be a useful tool to manage all the employees in an organization. As such, it can be used for performance management, talent management, and succession planning.

FAQ

What is the 9 box grid?

The 9 box grid is a well-known talent management tool in which employees are divided into nine groups, based on their performance and potential.

How do you create a 9 box grid?

To create a 9 box grid, you go through three steps: assessing performance, assessing potential, and bringing those two together.

What can you use the 9 box grid for?

The nine box grid can, for instance, be used as a basis for talent management (i.e. talent investment decisions) and succession planning.

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