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Why the 9 Box Grid is outdated and could be sabotaging your People Strategy.

In my past life, I used the 9 Box Grid. Like many HR professionals, I believed what I was told about the tool.  All the “best” organisations used it.  It was an essential part of the toolkit.  I rolled it out every year and worked hard to get managers to populate it.  Spent ages chasing managers to enter their data and then even more time trying to get managers to spread their people amongst the boxes, rather than cluster in the top right-hand corner.  It was exhausting.  Even then, I wondered if there was a better alternative to the 9-box grid.


Originally designed in the early 1970s, the GE–McKinsey 9 box grid was a systematic approach for the decentralised corporation to determine which business unit to invest its cash.  Considering business units against two factors – the attractiveness of the relevant industry and the unit’s competitive strength within that industry.  The model quickly transferred to other areas, and HR professionals started to use the grid to identify employee growth potential based on current performance scores.


Here we are some 50 years later still using a tool – that was never originally designed for succession planning or employee development.  So what’s the problem with continuing to use this approach, and why could it be sabotaging the rest of your People Strategy?  


Oversimplification of Performance and Potential

The 9-Box Grid categorises employees based on someone’s perception of their performance and potential, labelling them as high potentials, solid contributors, or low performers. This oversimplified approach doesn’t recognise the complexity of an individual’s abilities and growth trajectory. It ignores nuances such as specific skill sets, diversity of experiences, and the potential for rapid development. Relying solely on a two-dimensional grid can lead to wrong assessments and overlook hidden talents within the organisation.


Lack of Context and Individualisation

Each employee’s journey and circumstances are unique, and the 9-Box Grid fails to consider this critical aspect. It doesn’t account for external factors like market conditions, industry disruptions, or personal circumstances that may impact an employee’s performance or potential. Additionally, it overlooks the importance of tailoring development plans and career paths to individual needs, aspirations, and strengths. A one-size-fits-all approach can hinder employee engagement and limit the organisation’s ability to unlock untapped potential.


Bias and Subjectivity

The 9-Box Grid relies heavily on subjective assessments, which can introduce unconscious biases into the succession planning process. Human bias, whether based on personal preferences, demographic factors, or past experiences, can inadvertently influence employee ratings. This can lead to an unequal distribution of opportunities and hinder the organisation’s ability to build a diverse and inclusive leadership pipeline. Overcoming bias requires more robust evaluation methods and a commitment to fair and unbiased decision-making.


Inflexibility and Lack of Agility

The 9-Box Grid provides a static snapshot at a given point in time and ignores the dynamic nature of talent development. Employees evolve, learn, and acquire new skills over time, challenging the static nature of the grid. Succession planning should be an ongoing process that adapts to changing business needs and individual growth trajectories. Relying solely on the 9-Box Grid can limit the organisation’s ability to respond flexibly to emerging opportunities or address unforeseen talent gaps.


Lack of follow-up action

The 9 Box Grid compels organisations to categorise employees.  But after being categorised, how does the 9-box grid support development?  It doesn’t.  Simply knowing what we perceive about an employee’s performance or potential does nothing to help us identify the development needed by employees.  We’ve categorised people across functions and jobs and lost the individual needs of each of those employees.  My personal experience of using the 9-box grid was that after spending the energy to populate it, there was little energy or interest left for the development of the people they’ve just categorised! 


So, what do you do to overcome these limitations and improve your succession planning efforts?


  • Embrace Holistic Assessments: Move beyond a two-dimensional grid and adopt a more comprehensive approach considering a broader range of factors, such as skills, competencies, experiences, and aspirations.
  • Data-Driven Decision-Making: Leverage objective data and multiple sources of feedback to inform succession decisions, reducing the impact of bias and subjectivity.
  • Individual Development Plans: Tailor development plans to meet each employee’s unique needs, aspirations, and strengths based on a belief that EVERYONE is talented.
  • Regular Review and Adaptation: Implement an ongoing review process that enables agility and responsiveness to changes in the organisation’s needs and employees’ development.


Succession planning is important for an organisation’s long-term success – isn’t it time for us People Proesionels to offer our businesses a more modern and agile approach that builds robust and diverse talent pipelines and leverages the full potential of their employees?


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