April 19, 2023
Created by McKinsey in 1970 as a succession planning tool, the 9 box matrix was made “infamous” thanks to Jack Welch and his transformation of GE.
The tool was designed to assess performance and potential. It is now 53 years old so yes HR people, another old old old model if you are wondering why our profession is accused of a lack of innovation look no further! Over the years it became a standard go-to in the HR kit bag, sadly, it seems to still be in that kit bag today, but it is really time to stop using it.
In the 90’s we used it extensively for succession planning as that was a trend. This idea that we could predict what people wanted to do and where they would be suitable in 1, 3 and 5 years’ time seems like such an immature concept now, but it was a different time. I definitely caught that wave and am now somewhat embarrassed to admit that I rode that wave for way too long.
I have also used it for many other purposes. Talent management, performance management, and remuneration decisions, as I’m sure have many other HR practitioners, and I’m sure we will all admit, we have seen it be grossly overused and misused. Often misinterpreted, used incorrectly or inappropriately.
I have seen the tool bastardised in catastrophic ways. I had one CEO who was fixated on where, inside one of the boxes, a name sat. It was apparently very important if the name was at the bottom or the middle or the top of a box because this somehow told a different story. He even wanted names to sit across 2 boxes because being definitive was a definite challenge!
Another who wanted to apply mathematical equations to somehow quantify where on the matrix someone landed, and then where within the box a person sat (again) because it was important for there to be maths behind the evaluation. Best we don’t trust ourselves to actually know what and how to assess talent!
Having facilitated 100’s of these conversations, there was always a challenge getting assessors on the same page. Understanding the difference between performance and potential and trying to get leaders to talk to quantifiable and qualifiable measures was endlessly frustrating. Most HR practitioners will relate to the challenge of equalising subjectivity. Calling out the bias and prejudice usually descended into a different type of conversation.
“The 9 box matrix is now 53 years old – surely it is time for different thinking and a different approach.”
Some organisations found 9 boxes weren’t enough, and moved to 16 – providing more categories and more variability to work with. I would never want the CEOs I mentioned above to be given one of those!
What I have seen the most is, well, nothing! The process is usually like a secret Executive team evaluation process that never sees the light of day. Adding no value and delivering no outcomes yet making Executive teams “feel” like they’ve done this incredibly important talent management exercise when it’s been nothing but a farce.
So what’s so wrong with the 9 box matrix?
Aside from the fact that I really can’t think of a single time, in 30 years, where I’ve seen this type of evaluation tool amount to anything meaningful, here is a list of what I think is wrong:
It doesn’t meet the benchmark for contemporary HR talent management practices – it literally puts people in a box, attaches a label, thinks about people in only 1 dimension
It is a moment in time
It typically doesn’t include the type of in-depth evaluation inputs necessary to assess potential or performance, rather just a bunch of opinions, a lot of bias and prejudice, and an absence of critical evaluation – it is rooted in subjectivity and that is risky and problematic
It is frequently misused and poorly facilitated
It creates distrust and suspicion – there is often awareness but it is typically very secret squirrel, and even if not confidential, it is mostly a 1 way process where the person being assessed doesn’t get to contribute. This is just autocratic.
It usually leads to nothing – drives no change, can damage trust, but also how does it really affect talent solutions in a positive way?
Imagine for a minute if you knew your name was put in a box, of which there are really good boxes and really bad ones, by a bunch of people discussing you, and that the decision of which box resulted in a fixed opinion of you, that would somehow determine your future, yet you weren’t allowed to know about it or give input. And maybe you do know a bit, like the amount of bonus or pay increase you receive because of where you ended up on that secret matrix, but how does that inspire performance? It just inspires suspicion.
Your workforce needs you to assess potential and
performance – and you need it too – but don’t use a 9 box approach. There are much better ways.
What to do instead?
We strongly advocate models that create a common language. This is actually one of the upsides of a 9 box matrix. Once you get everyone to understand what each category means – that shared understanding can be important. Replacing the 9 box with something else should always include:
Common language and a shared understanding
Effective and appropriate assessment tools that are designed to assess potential and performance in a less subjective way that provides objective measurable inputs (qualitative and quantitative)
The employee’s input
We recommend that companies move away from traditional performance appraisal processes, and we have done this ourselves in practice for the past 20 years – read our article here. We are not the only ones, Google, GE, Adobe, Microsoft, Accenture, and Deloitte to name a few, have all done this too.
Once you do this, and you move to a model that is conversation based, not event/time based nor templated with forms, and executed by skilled leaders who are invested in developing people and creating high-performing cultures, you have a much more meaningful approach to assessing performance and potential. This coupled with a contemporary talent management model, results in there being no need to put names in a box. You will also be creating a higher trust culture – as we say, no trust, no chance!
You must evaluate people’s performance and potential. If you don’t, how will you know how to tailor your L&D strategies, fill your pipeline of future talent, and achieve the career development objectives in your people strategy, but chuck out the 9 box – there are much better ways.
If you would like to know more about our strategy programs for managing talent in a contemporary way that gets results, reach out.
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