The Performance and Potential Matrix (9 Box Model) – an Update

Note: this is an update to one of the very first posts I wrote in November 2007 and continues to be one of my most popular. I thought it was time for an update.

The performance and potential matrix (9 box model) is one of the most widely used tools in succession planning and development. It can be a valuable tool for anyone who works in talent management, or for any manager.

For some reason, however, it seems to be covered in a veil of secrecy, leaving those that want to learn how to use it with little guidance. You’ve probably found this post from an internet search – I hope it helps answer your questions and you’ll find Great Leadership to be a valuable resource for all things leadership development.

What is it and where did it come from?

The performance and potential matrix, commonly referred to as “the nine box”, is a simple yet effective tool used to assess talent in organizations. It assesses individuals on two dimensions – their past performance and their future potential.

The X axis (horizontal line) of 3 boxes assesses leadership performance and the Y axis of 3 boxes (vertical line) assesses leadership potential. A combination of Y and X axis makes up the box within the grid that the leader is placed. 1A – High Performance/High Potential, 3C – Low Performance/Low Potential, etc…

See example:

The Performance and Potential Matrix (9 Box )

No one seems to know for sure who invented it, although I’ve heard Al Gore once took credit for it. Others say it may have been first used at GE, under Jack Welch’s leadership. I first started using it in 1997, and have since used it to facilitate hundreds of talent review meetings (and lived to tell about it). I’ve also used it as a manager as a way to assess and develop my own team.

Thanks to the power of Google, I’ve been invited to give presentations at HR conferences on the 9 box, was interviewed in SHRM’s HR Magazine (8/2011 issue, “On the Grid”), and walked a lot of anxious beginners through the process, including a very grateful HR team from India and a few non-profits that couldn’t afford to hire a consultant.

I’m thinking it might be time for a bestselling book? Something catchy like “Let’s Get Rid of the Nine-box”, or “2B or not 2B, that is The Question”.

What are the benefits? Why’s it so popular?

1. It’s simple and it works (95% of the time).
The beauty of the tool is in its simplicity and ease of use. With a little explanation and initial facilitation, managers usually can catch on pretty quickly. It helps overcome many of the common pitfalls when it comes to talent assessment, including:
– Overemphasis on current performance
– Overreliance on a single opinion
– A lack of assessment criteria, or inconsistent criteria
I’ve had teams (often engineers) try to overcomplicate it, by adding more boxes, definitions for each box, and all kinds of bells and whistles. It hardly ever improves the process and often distracts from the overall purpose.
When I say it works 95% of the time, it’s from my own experience. I’ve only had one senior team where it just blew up, and that’s because there was such a lack of trust and dysfunction.

2. It’s cost-effective.
Actually, other than people’s time, or a paid facilitator, it’s free. There are other ways to assess potential – instruments and assessment centers are great – yet they are also expensive. If you can afford to send every manager through a $10,000 assessment center, then good for you. For the rest, this is the next best thing.

3. A catalyst for robust dialog.
It’s not about filling out the grid – it’s all about the discussion. It’s critical to keep that in front of you. Managers, in general, are not very skilled when it comes to assessing talent, and are very hesitant to discuss other manager’s employees, or hear feedback about their own. This tool helps provide a structured way to have those conversations in a professional, productive way.

4. Helps calibrate criteria and expectations.
Even if you don’t have clear, consistent, definitions of performance and potential going into a talent review, by using this tool, you will by the time you are done. If fact, for a lot of managers in the room, it’s the first time they’ve heard their own bosses’ expectations, so you’ll see them discreetly jotting down notes and assessing themselves.

5. It’s more accurate than one person’s opinion.
The accuracy of assessing performance and potential improves with multiple data points. Manager’s often have blind spots with their own employees, and are unaware of how they are perceived by others. These discussions can help shine a light on superstars and poor performers.

6. Facilitates shared ownership, teamwork.
This is a ground rule for any talent management meeting and discussion: “We all, as a team, are collectively are responsible for building a stronger organization. We need to be candid, listen to each other, and help develop each other’s employees.”
In a functional or segmented organization, talent development is often one of the few things a management team can actually work on together.

7. A diagnostic tool for development.
A talent review meeting uncovers both individual and organizational strengths and weaknesses. The grid serves as a needs assessment for development actions that need to be taken.

How to use it:

1. Don’t do it alone for the first time.
The tool is best if used by a team and facilitated by someone who has experience with the process. This could be an HR person, OD consultant, or someone responsible for leadership development or succession planning. Once a team has used a couple times, they can usually do it themselves, but it still helps to have someone facilitate the dialog, take notes, etc…. If you are a talent management practitioner, try to shadow someone with expertise, hire someone to guide you through your first one, or at least work with someone to prepare you.

2. Have a pre-meeting.
You should present the tool and process to the team to make sure they all understand and buy in to the purpose and process. Don’t underestimate the amount of anxiety if a team has never done anything like this before (a ranking exercise). It’s best to decide ahead of time how performance will be assessed (use a leadership competency model if you have one) and how potential will be assessed (again, best to decide ahead of time – I use specific potential criteria). This is the time to establish ground rules as well, especially around meeting behaviors and confidentiality.

3. Preparation.
Have each manager fill in a grid for their own employees and have the facilitator collect and consolidate them. You could also ask for any other relevant information, such as years in current position, diversity status, retention risk, or relocatability. I usually have each manager plot their direct report managers (one level at a time, so we’re comparing apples to apples). I then consolidate all of the names, by level, on an organizational grid.
You can start with a 2-4 hour meeting, but it will usually take 1-2 follow-up meetings to finish. Bring copies of the consolidated grid for each participant.

5. Getting started.
It’s easier picking someone in the 1A box (highest performance and potential) where you think there may be little disagreement. Ask the sponsor manager to explain the rationale for the assessment. Ask lots of why’s, then invite all others to comment. Don’t rush it, the benefit of this process is in the discussion.

6. Establish your “benchmarks”.
After all have been heard from, if there is agreement, then you have a 1A benchmark, or poster child, for all others to compare against. If disagreement in perception, ask the sponsor manager if they want to change their mind based on the feedback – usually they do – but if not, leave it. Pick another name until you establish the benchmark.

7. Discuss as many names as time allows.
You can then discuss rest of the names in the 1A box, then move to the bordering boxes (1B and 2A). Then move to the 3C box, and again, facilitate a dialog to establish another benchmark. Continue the discussion for each person, or as many as time permits.

8. Move to development.
If time, or most likely at a follow-up meeting, the team can then discuss development plans for each leader. For succession planning, the focus should be on the upper right hand corner boxes (1A, 1B, and 2A) – this is your high potential pool.

9. Follow-up on a quarterly basis to monitor development plans. Repeat the assessment process at least once a year.

More posts on the using the performance and potential matrix:

Nine Leadership Development Strategies for a Performance and Potential Matrix

Reader Question: Nine Box Performance and Potential Matrix Best Practices

How to “Score” Leadership Potential When Using the Performance and Potential Matrix