Monday, July 15, 2013

12 “Out-of-the-Box” Ways to Use a 9 Box Matrix

A long, long time ago, back in the days when Jack Welch was leading GE, organizations starting using a “9 box” performance and potential matrix for succession planning and leadership development.
Despite its critics, the 9 box lives on. And it should – in its purest, simplest form, it works. It’s an effective and efficient way for a leadership team to assess and differentiate its talent pool, diagnose individual and organizational development needs, and identify high potentials.

However , like many simple best practices, they tend to mutate over the years as they are passed from organization to organization. HR and managers that have tried the 9-box figure if it works as a tool to discuss talent, then way don’t we use it for_______? Or, they often just want to add their own bells and whistles.
Some of these variations seem like nice ideas, and others not so good.

Here’s 12 variations of the 9-box that I’ve seen. I’m not endorsing any of them – not because I think they are bad (although I think some are), it’s just that I don’t have enough personal experience or evidence to.

1. Use it as a budgeting tool to allocate training resources. Organizations can take their development budget (or focus, time) and spread it out amongst the nine boxes. They can take a “peanut butter” approach (spread it out evenly across all 9 boxes), or differentiate and load up their investment on their high potentials or some other box.
2. Use it as a way to identify organizational talent gaps for recruiting. Organizations may discover they have a lack of talent in certain parts of the organization (i.e., not enough “A players”, or ready successors) and use the process to focus their recruiting efforts (buy vs. build).

3. Use it as a tool for compensation administration. An organization can use it as a guide for determining pay increases, bonuses, or other forms of variable compensation. For example, you may want to give stock options or grants in order to retain your high potentials, and cash bonuses to reward your high performers. 
4. Use it as a downsizing decision tool. I’m not even sure if this is legal, but I’ve heard of organizations using it to determine who stays and who goes.

5. Use it for peers to rate each other. A reader actually asked me if I had heard of anybody else doing this, as they were considering trying it. I have not, and didn’t come up that have with any when I posted the question to a couple discussion boards. Intuitively it feels like a bad idea, but in today’s world of rating just about everything via social media, who knows?
6. Use it as a tool to guide development planning. While every individual have their own unique development needs, some organizations provide general development guidelines based on where someone is on the grid.

7.  Use it to assess individual contributors. Most organizations use the 9-box as a tool to assess managers for potential to move up in the organization for succession planning. However, I’ve seen some leadership teams use it as way to discuss whether individual contributors have the potential “to grow, learn, and take on new responsibilities”, etc… They’re just defining for themselves what “potential” means, but it’s important to have clear and valid criteria, just as you would when assessing for “leadership” potential.
8. Come up with descriptions for each of the 9 boxes. I really hate this! This is when teams decide they need to come up with cute and specific descriptions (i.e., “misfit”, “solid performer”, “trusted pro”) for each of the nine boxes in order to rate their talent. It only confuses the raters and makes it harder to place people, as the descriptions never seem to describe their people. Stick to the two variables: performance and potential. Most (90%) of teams get it and don’t need the added complexity – it adds little value.

9. Subdivide each of the 9 boxes. Another despised variation, often favored by the engineers and scientists. They want to turn a 9-box into a 27 box or more, attempting to add another level of preciseness and complexity.
10. Require a forced distribution. Some organizations require that a minimum of 10% of any talent pool be placed in the “3C” box (low performance and potential” and only a maximum of 20% can be in the 3 “upper right corner” boxes, or some other variation of an allocation requirement. While many despise any kind of forced ranking methodology, I’ve found it can be an effective way to force a team to differentiate its talent. Then again, it usually works just as well when a team is encouraged to differentiate, vs. forcing them to.

11. Use “keys”, or codes to identify things like “readiness”, “relocatability”, race and gender (yes, it’s legal to use EEO codes), and all sorts of other ways to cram more data onto a single page.
12. Replacing “performance and potential” with other scales (i.e., “leadership and results”, or “leadership and management”). Whatever. If it serves a need, then why not?

What other variations of the 9-box performance and potential have you seen?


Jennifer V. Miller said...


Count me among those with strong distaste for #10. Used to work for an organization with Forced Distribution for pay. I do agree that there is a striation of performers; however, it's not a certainty that in (for example) a team of 15 employees, that performance will neatly organize itself into the performance bands. It's one of the most demoralizing and ineffective ways to assess a team.

I *do* agree with you in the sense that it can be helpful to figure out which players are ready for bigger challenges and a more significant contribution to the organization.

Dan McCarthy said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts on forced distributions.

Jaleel said...

Great post, very good info