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”
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
. 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”

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
. 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
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?