How to Use the Nine-Box Matrix for Succession Planning and Development

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Using the nine-box method to assess and develop talent can have several benefits including its lack of complexity. While the tool may be simple, the dynamics of people using the tool are not. Don’t underestimate the amount of anxiety it can cause if a team has never done a ranking exercise like this before.

Defining the Nine-Box Matrix

The nine-box matrix helps employers identify a pool of high performers who make good candidates for internal promotions. Companies know that acquiring talent externally costs much more than identifying internal candidates with potential.

The nine boxes of the matrix offer employee category descriptions. Management must discuss each employee and assign them to a relevant box in the matrix.

When all members of the team agree to which employees belong in the top-performer boxes, they have successfully identified candidates with good promotion potential. The nine boxes of the matrix have descriptive titles, such as Core Contributor, Solid Performer, or Star.

To learn more about the performance and potential of the nine-box matrix and its benefits, see 8 Reasons to Use the Performance and Potential Nine-Box Matrix for Succession Planning and Leadership Development.

Laying the Groundwork

Get some help to use the nine-box method for the first time. The nine-box works best for a team, with facilitation by someone who has experience using the process. This could be an HR person, OD consultant, someone responsible for leadership development or succession planning, or an outside consultant.

Once a team has used it a couple times, they can usually do it themselves, but it still helps to have someone facilitate the dialogue, take notes, etc. If you work as 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.

Have a pre-meeting. Go over the nine-box grid and process with your team prior to using it to make sure they all understand and support the purpose and process. Review the mechanics of how to fill out the grid, along with a few hypothetical examples.

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 using specific potential criteria. For performance, it’s best to use a three-year average, not just one year. Establish ground rules up front as well, especially regarding meeting behaviors and confidentiality.

Engage in some preparation. Have each manager fill in a nine-box 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, or retention risk.

You can have each manager plot their direct report managers (one level at a time, to make sure you're comparing apples to apples). Then consolidate all of the names, by level, on one master organizational grid.

You can start with a two to four-hour meeting, but also expect to take one to two follow-up meetings to finish. Bring copies of the consolidated grid for each participant. As a meeting facilitator or consultant, you can give the meeting leader a preview of the results and discuss any potential landmines, especially if it’s the first time working with a team.

Putting the Method To Use

Get your team started. It’s easier picking someone in the 1A box of the matrix (highest performance and potential) where you think there may be little disagreement. Ask the sponsor manager of the employee to explain the rationale for the assessment. Ask lots of whys, and then invite all others to comment.

Don’t rush it; this process works because of the discussion. It may seem slow at first, but the pace will pick up as the team gets more familiar with the process.

Establish your “benchmarks.” After all parties have had a chance to speak, if any agreements arise, then you have a benchmark for high performance and potential (1A) for all others to compare against. If the team has a disagreement in perception, ask the sponsor manager if they want to change their mind based on the feedback because they usually do, but if not, leave it. Pick another employee's name to discuss until you establish the benchmark.

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

Discuss development needs and actions for each employee. If time allows, or, most likely at a follow-up meeting, the team can discuss individual development plans (IDPs) for each employee. For succession planning, the focus should be on the upper right-hand corner boxes (1A, 1B, and 2A) because this highlights the organization’s high potential pool.

As another option, you can discuss development as a part of the assessment discussion, while discussing the person’s strengths and weaknesses. For poor performers (3C), action plans should be discussed and agreed upon.

Ongoing Maintenance

Follow-up on a quarterly basis to monitor development plans. Without monitoring and follow up there's a good chance development plans will be ignored or slip away. Organizations that have a strong commitment to talent development track their IDPs like any other important business metric. What gets measured usually gets done.

Repeat the assessment process at least once a year. Organizations are dynamic, with people coming and going all the time, and perceptions of performance and potential can change based on results and behavior. It’s important to revisit the process to re-assess and update development plans on a regular basis.