The Nine-Box Matrix for Succession Planning and Development

Business people meeting around conference room table
••• Hero Images / Getty Images

The leadership performance and potential matrix are commonly referred to as the nine-box grid, nine-box matrix, or simply as “the nine-box.”

Nine-box is one of the most widely used tools in succession planning and leadership development. It can be a valuable tool for anyone who works in talent management, or for any manager as a way to assess and differentiate a team or organization.

How It Works

It is usually used to assess individuals on two dimensions: their past performance and their future potential.

The horizontal rows of three boxes assess performance, and the vertical columns assess leadership potential. Where the column and row connect makes up the box within the grid that each employee is placed in.

1A = High Performance/High Potential, 3C = Low Performance/Low Potential, 2B = medium performance/medium potential, etc.

While an individual leader can use the nine-box to assess their own employees, it has real value is when a leadership team uses it as a part of a talent review to have a discussion about the organization’s talent.

Simple and Effective

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 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

Sometimes leadership teams will try to overcomplicate it, by adding more boxes, definitions for each box, and other items. While there may be benefits to doing this, nine-boxes work fine with nine boxes and simple labels.

Free and Not Proprietary

Other than people’s time, or a paid facilitator, there is no cost to using the nine-box. There are other ways to assess potential—formal instruments and assessment centers work well, yet they are expensive. Most organizations can’t afford to send every manager through a $10,000 assessment center.

A Catalyst for Robust Dialog

It’s not about filling out the grid—it’s all about the discussion. This is a critical point that beginner teams often lose sight of. Managers, in general, are not very skilled when it comes to assessing talent. Most are hesitant to discuss other manager’s employees or hear feedback about their own. This tool helps managers have those conversations in a professional, productive way.

Framework and Structure

With skilled facilitation, the nine-box provides a framework and roadmap to discuss each individual’s performance, potential, development needs, and development plans.

A management team using the nine-box structure to ensure unbiased evaluations are used has a better chance of finding the right people for promotion.

Calibrates Criteria and Expectations

It’s recommended that teams go into the talent review with a pre-determined, clear, and consistent definition of performance and potential. Sometimes those definitions don’t exist. Even if they do, they are often just words on paper not grounded in reality.

By using this tool, teams have a chance to discuss what performance and potential means. In fact, for many of the managers in the room, the talent review is the first time they’ve heard their own bosses’ expectations.

More Accurate Than One Person’s Opinion

The accuracy of assessing performance and potential improves with multiple data points. Managers often have blind spots with their employees and are unaware of how they are perceived by others. These discussions can help shine a light on superstars and poor performers.

Facilitates Shared Ownership and Teamwork

It 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 work on together.

A Diagnostic Tool for Development

A talent review meeting uncovers both individual and organizational strengths and weaknesses. The nine-box serves as a needs assessment for development actions that need to be taken. Many organizations use nine-box talent reviews to discuss and agree on individual development plans (IDPs) for each employee.

The nine-box can be a very effective tool to facilitate a discussion around performance and potential. While it’s not perfect and has its inherent pitfalls, its advantages far outweigh its disadvantages.