How to Use The 9-box Grid for Talent Reviews

Akshit Dangi

You’ve got a great talent pool of hard-working and dedicated people. Now it’s time to see how each team member has performed and whether some of them can take the helm in the future.

But how exactly do you go about doing that? Specifically, how do you plan to measure your team members’ performance and potential while identifying their possible needs?

The answer is simple. Use a 9-box talent grid.

Created by Mckinsey to identify key investment opportunities and compare different business units, the talent assessment grid has since become a staple in talent reviews and succession planning across the globe. 

But what exactly is a 9-box talent grid? And, more importantly, how can we use it for reviewing our talent pool? Read on to unravel everything there is to know about these grids.

What is a 9-box talent grid?

The 9-box grid is a powerful tool to assess your people’s performance and potential, helping build a high-performance workplace culture.

The grid is a 3x3 matrix, each representing the nine categories that signify an individual's level of performance and potential. The horizontal axis measures performance, while the vertical axis measures potential. Each axis is divided by three labels - low, moderate, and high.

During an assessment, we can categorize our team members into one of the following boxes that define their present and future competencies:

Nowadays, though, the 9-box talent grid has gone far beyond simply being a tool for talent assessment. Organizations are getting creative with its application and use the grid to solve performance management-related problems such as:

1. Succession Planning

The 9-box grid plays a crucial role in helping an organization’s leaders identify talent and groom them to take on leadership roles in the near future. It allows them to identify such talent’s future needs and prepare a development plan to facilitate the same.

2. Performance Reviews

The 9-box grid can indicate an organization’s overall completion of OKRs for any particular review period from ground zero. Additionally, by identifying a team member's needs and future potential, the managers and executives can align their goals to achieve key results while fulfilling all requirements and facilitating any required training.

3. Facilitating Dialogue

The 9-box grid allows for sharing multiple perspectives in talent evaluation. This helps provide more accurate results and facilitates dialogue among the organization’s managers in reaching a joint consensus on talent evaluation. Not to mention, the grid enables coaching conversations between managers and those in need of the same.

How can you use the 9-box grid for reviewing talent?

Now that we know what a 9-box grid is and what it represents, it’s time to fill one out for ourselves. To understand how to utilize a 9-box talent grid, we’ll divide the process into three parts:

Part 1 - Assessing your talent

The process of using a 9-box grid begins with a general talent review process that compares a team member against pre-established competencies that measure both performance and potential.

For performance, try to analyze qualities such as on-the-job performance, job awareness, adaptability, productivity, etc. For potential, you can boil it down to their past demonstration of leadership abilities, social skills, and drive. A scoring system with pre-defined psychometric parameters (a 5-point scale, for example) can help you place your team members more easily.

Part 2 - Placing team members on the grid

Now that you have successfully compared each team member against performance and potential competencies, it’s time to identify their actual placement on the 9-box grid. 

To do so, determine a range for labeling your team members under low, moderate, and high for both the performance and the potential axes. Once you do so, you’ll be able to place your team members in one of the nine boxes of the talent grid based on the score you assign to them.

Part 3 - Identifying needs and preparing a development plan

Now that you know where each of your team members is placed on the grid, it is up to you to prepare an individual plan for each member based on what they need to excel and realize their potential.

In the case of team members placed on the lowest box of the grid—low performance and low potential- you must initiate a conversation to understand the missing key to the puzzle. Next, lay out a development plan to help your people improve their performance and align it with your key results.

In the case of succession planning, your primary objective is to build bench strength. To do so, you must identify your high-potential team members and prepare plans to transform them into leaders capable of taking charge within the organization.

Remember, every program will be different for every team member. For example:

  • A team member with high potential but low performance may require stretch tasks that can effectively use their potential and improve performance.
  • On the other hand, team members with high potential and moderate to high performance may require more leadership opportunities and coaching to bring out the leader in them.

Limitations of the 9-box talent grid

There’s no doubt that the 9-box talent grid is a great and practical tool for talent and performance management. However, it’s not devoid of missable gaps.

The categorization may lead to ambiguity

One challenge with using the 9-box grid is the segregation of team members into three simple categories—low, moderate, and high. If the competencies associated with performance and potential are ill-defined, it becomes difficult to distinguish low from moderate and moderate from high. The issue becomes even more apparent when reviewing talent across different business units, as the competencies used for two business units can differ vastly.

The grid can potentially curb morale

There is an ongoing debate among researchers on whether sharing the information from a 9-box grid is the right thing to do. After all, no team member would like to see themselves categorized as low performers or having low potential. Besides, even if it’s not the intention, the grid can create a sense of competition among the team members, leading to hierarchies and disrupting team spirit.

Member placements are wholly subjective

Even if we use a proper scoring system to place our team members on a 9-box grid; the fact remains that the grid relies heavily on a manager’s perspective toward any particular team member’s work. If the manager is not up to the task at hand, their team members’ capabilities may be wrongfully rated, foiling the whole purpose of the grid. 

Bias in determining potential

Determining the performance of an individual is one thing—it is based on past work and an individual’s existing competencies. However, determining the potential of an individual is a different beast altogether, as there is no concrete way of calculating it. Managers tend to rely on their ideologies and perspectives, which, more often than not, is plagued with an intentional or unintentional bias towards a particular team member. This leads to team members being inaccurately judged on their potential.

Using the 9-box grid the right way

Despite all the problems surrounding using a 9-box talent grid, the fact remains that it is still a great tool when beginning your talent assessment process as it gives a great picture to get started with. To make the best use of the grid, gather perspectives from different managers and leaders to make the grid objectively accurate.

The 9-box grid will forever serve you well so long as you use it alongside other talent and performance management tools to be accurate and fair towards all your team members. As long as you remember as much, you’ve got this in the bag.

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