Using the 9-box grid in talent and succession planning

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Kiddy & Partners

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The 9 box grid has dominated succession and talent management planning for the past 50 years, and whilst it remains a widely used tool, few people are completely comfortable with it, and alternatives are lacking.

What is the 9 box grid?

The tool plots employee performance against potential, based on three levels of performance (e.g. Not meeting objectives, Meeting objectives, Exceeding objectives) and three of potential (e.g. Low, Medium, High).

There are there are two main challenges to overcome when using the 9-box grid. The first is achieving a robust rating of potential.  The second is altering the grid so that it becomes a more dynamic tool.

Can the 9 box grid be used to achieve a robust rating of potential?

Taking the first issue, most of the discomfort people have with the tool is the subjectivity given when rating potential.  This is an issue rarely experienced with the performance axis – we rely on objective data about goal achievement to determine whether someone is underperforming or exceeding in terms of performance, so why is it acceptable not to do so for an individual’s potential rating?

The answer to this first part of the problem is to use a robust model to classify people into low, medium and high potential. Kiddy’s model of potential is based on our own extensive assessment database of successful senior leaders and what makes them different, and we rate people against the criteria of potential using a range of tools. Combined with a robust rating of performance it is then possible to plot an individual onto the 9 box grid.

In addition, clients also recognise that often, succession planning takes place in a metaphorical dark room and that typically this means that those considered ‘high potential’ aren’t asked if they have the aspirations to adopt more challenging roles in future, or if so, where their interests lie.  Incorporating this typically overlooked element will further enhance use of the 9 box grid.

Can the 9 box grid be used to drive action?

The second challenge requires altering the content of the grid to be more action-oriented.  Most organisations have a version of the grid with the top right defined as something like “High Potential”. At Kiddy, we believe that the grid descriptions should be different depending on the lens being applied – to make them more dynamic and meaningful to leaders. Taking one of the most common scenarios in which the 9 box is used – development planning – the top right position will contain descriptions of the activities that individuals need to undertake, such as a business school course, getting a mentor from the divisional board, etc.

By applying a model of potential to drive the rating, and describing the 9 box grid in specific ways depending on the context, a much more robust and useful tool for leaders is created.  For many organisations, succession planning is a board priority, but it remains a formal, once a year process rather than anything more dynamic.  Try to track movement between boxes, and consider the reasons for moves, particularly unanticipated ones.  Finally, avoid the nine-box model making talent conversations become HR conversations, rather than the strategic business conversations which they should be.