The 9-Box Grid: Benefits & Limitations in 2022 (+Template)

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9 box grid

When assessing employee performance or considering the value of an individual for an organization, HR needs to assess two dimensions: an employee’s current contribution and future potential.

The assessment of an employee’s current contribution calibrates the performance of their teams to ensure appropriate recognition and reward. 

On the other hand, assessing future potential helps identify individuals with high performers with the potential to grow into future leadership roles, called succession planning. 

Improving employee performance and identifying team members for future leadership roles enables organizations to increase job satisfaction and improve retention rates

One of the most commonly used models for assessing employee performance is the 9-box grid. The 9-box grid is a simple, free exercise that groups employee performance into quadrants and ensures consistent treatment of employees across different performance groupings.

What Is the 9-Box Grid?

The 9 box grid provides a framework to assess employee performance and enables succession planning. The exercise’s grid maps employees against two axes: current performance and future potential. 

The vertical (y) axis indicates growth potential, referring to an individual’s potential to grow into leadership roles. The horizontal axis (x) represents an employees’ current performance, identifying whether they are below, meeting, or exceeding performance expectations. The 9 boxes in the grid result from the relationship between their ‘potential’ and ‘performance’.

What Is the Purposes of the 9-Box Grid?

  • To capture a comprehensive view of the talent pipeline both within and between business units and identify critical gaps that need to be addressed
  • To determine the potential, risk, and impact of loss of our current talent
  • To identify strategies for developing, retaining, and working with our current talent
  • To enable cross-functional and cross-organizational discussions around our current bench strength
  • To identify potential successors both locally and systemwide 
  • To boost internal recruitment leads when vacancies occur in leadership positions 
  • To identify the appropriate target audience for high-potential development opportunities
  • To expand discussions on building diverse leadership talent

Breaking Down the Quadrants of the 9 Box Grid

HR and managers work together to assign each employee to relevant boxes on the 9-box grid based on the x-axis which represents an employee’s current performance and the y-axis that represents their future potential.

The 9 box grid consists of the following groups, segments, or boxes:

  • Low Performer, High Potential
  • Low Performer, Moderate Potential
  • Low Performer, Low Potential
  • Moderate Performer, High Potential
  • Moderate Performer, Moderate Potential
  • Moderate Performer, Low Potential
  • High Performer, High Potential
  • High Performer, Moderate Potential
  • High Performer, Low Potential
9-box grid quadrants

When performance and potential are assessed and plotted on the graph, employees in the upper right quadrant (Box 1) are identified as potential candidates for succession.

In contrast, employees in the lower left quadrant (Box 9) may need to be reassigned or let go of the organization. The boxes on the grid help HR teams determine the suitable investments for the right talent to develop future leaders. 

Employees in box 1 should be ready for top leadership within 6 months to a year, while those in boxes 2 and 3 have a longer timeline but can be groomed for an eventual transition to box 1.

Here’s what a sample 9-box grid looks like:

(Remember the job requirements and personal targets differ for organizations depending on their job structure)

Low Performance Moderate Performance High Performance
High Potential Box 5:
  • Learns and adapts quickly
  • Operates in the best interest of the company
  • Fails to identify or implement creative solutions when necessary
Box 2:
  • Performs extremely well at current job
  • Has potential to take up challenges
  • Needs new tasks to prepare for next level
Box 1:
  • Consistent performance in all tasks
  • Thinks outside the box
  • Problem solver
  • Ready to take up new tasks and challenges
Moderate Potential Box 8:
  • Fails to identify or implement creative solutions when necessary
  • Has potential to progress 
  • Needs the right discipline 
  • Needs to learn task management.
Box 6:
  • Occasionally identifies and implements creative solutions.
  • Can be considered for job enlargement in the future
  • Might need training in people management
Box 3:
  • Consistently uses creativity and innovation in solving problems and implementing solutions.
  • Current role may provide an opportunity for growth
  • Needs to focus on improving strategic thinking and owning tasks
​Low Potential Box 9:
  • May be a candidate for reassignment, reclassification to a lower level, or exit from the organization.
Box 7:
  • Can perform better with the right guidance.
  • Could be benefitted by lateral thinking skills.
Box 4:
  • Outstanding results in a wide variety of challenging settings and circumstances.
  • Keeps current skills up-to-date, but demonstrates little effort to build new skills.
  • Focus on delegation skills for this employee

The Benefits of Using the 9-Box Grid

Let’s discuss the advantages of using the 9-box grid:

1. Identify valuable talent

The 9-box grid allows you to spot high performers within the organization who have great potential to become future leaders. It helps strategize and direct your resources intelligently to engage and develop the future leaders of your organization. Additionally, when internal promotions come up, the 9-box grid gives you an idea of the suitable candidates to consider for these opportunities. 

2. Highlight development opportunities

While looking for high potential leaders in the 9-box grid, the weaker players – who aren’t currently suited for their current job or lack specific skillsets, are also highlighted in the process. These insights enable HR and managers to investigate these employees further and provide the best support to reach their next career goal and develop these team members into better performers.

Here’s a template with suggested action items in each box.

9-box grid - development plan

3. Increases transparency

The 9-box grid approach requires open and honest communication within the leadership team to evaluate the performance and potential of every employee. These discussions help clarify leaders’ expectations of the employees for contributing to the organizational goals.

TOM SULLIVAN
“The 9-box is a means to a greater end. It’s a starting point for assessing and determining a development path for individuals being reviewed. The talent review discussions are an important exercise for any leadership team, but the true benefits come from the actions taken after concluding the meeting.”

TOM SULLIVAN

President and CEO, ProGrowth Associates LLC  

Limitations of the 9-Box Grid

Here are a few of the challenges of using the 9-box grid for talent and performance management:

1. Distinguishing between performance & potential

Distinguishing between performance and potential can be difficult, especially without a clear definition or understanding of both concepts.

Organizations usually have a well-defined method for evaluating performance; however, evaluating potential is still less familiar for many, resulting in individuals being rated inaccurately on potential. Without clearly defined processes for identifying team members with high potential, unconscious biases may also impact employee ratings.

2. Employee reactions

If you decide to be transparent and honest with your employees and share performance information, it may lead to discouragement and lower employee morale. Low-ranking employees may react negatively to being labeled a “low performer” or “low potential” – and for good reason. 

Sharing this information with employees can also create a hierarchy among succession candidates, disrupting teamwork and relationships in the organization.

3. Labels employees

The 9-box grid confines your employees to a specific label, affecting how management sees them. For instance, describing an employee as a low performer with low potential on the grid might change how management treats and sees that employee from that point on.

How to Create a 9-Box Grid in 3 Steps

There are three steps to creating a 9-box grid for succession planning for your organization:

1. Assess employee performance

During the first step, the performance level of each employee is assessed. The exact criteria to score performance varies depending on the needs of an organization. But each employee must be categorized into one of these three groups:

  • Low performance – The employee does not match their job requirements and fails to achieve their targets and goals. They demonstrate a lack of motivation and alignment with the organization’s vision.
  • Moderate performance – The employee partially matches their job requirements and individual targets and goals.
  • High performance – The employee fully meets their job requirements and individual targets and shows consistent performance in all tasks.

2. Assess employee potential

As the next step, the potential of each employee is assessed. An employee’s potential is defined by how much they are expected to grow in the future, their willingness to learn new things, and their ability to apply their knowledge in routine tasks. 

As discussed in one of the challenges, evaluating employee potential is less familiar for organizations than assessing employee performance. 

To bring both concepts down to simplest terms, they can be distinguished as performance being the past behavior and potential being the expected future behavior. Potential often falls into the following categories:

  • Low potential – The employee has either reached their maximum capacity or lacks the motivation to grow further. 
  • Moderate potential – The employee has the potential to further develop in their current role in terms of performance or expertise. 
  • High potential – The employee performs beyond the expectations of their position and responsibilities. They naturally and enthusiastically take on leadership opportunities and are always prepared for new challenges.  

Note – Assessing potential is different from assessing performance, even if the process seems to be the same. For instance, an employee with low potential might already be working at their maximum capacity required for the current position, making them unsuitable for becoming future leaders. 

On the other hand, if an employee is low or moderate in the performance scale but has high potential, they can be considered for leadership roles in the next two to three years, given that they undergo effective training and development.

3. Merge performance and potential into a 3×3 grid

Once all employees have been scored as low, moderate, or high on both performance and potential, the final step is to plot them on a 3×3 grid, resulting in your 9-box grid. The grid gives managers and HR a clear view of where each employee stands.

How to Use the 9-Box Grid Data to Create a Performance Management Action Plan

Once employees are categorized into appropriate boxes of the 9-box grid, managers are able to create individual development plans for every employee based on their respective category. 

In general, you want to invest the most time and effort in high performers with high potential and the least in low performers with low potential. The investment efforts should increase as you move towards the right and upwards and decrease towards the left and downwards.

If you had to invest $1000 on employee development plan, here’s how it should be divided among the different talent categories. 

9-box grid - investment

Now let’s discuss the action plan to be employed for improving performance for the employees in the 9-box grid.

  1. Low Performer, Low Potential
    • Identify personal roadblocks causing low performance.
    • Identify a more appropriate job role to fir better.
    • If there is no valid reason for low performance and no other suitable job role, create an exit plan for the individual.

      2. Moderate Performer Low Potential and Low Performer Moderate Potential

    • Create employee development plans after analyzing skill gaps
    • Coach on becoming more innovative.
    • Provide measurable expectations and clearly define what good performance looks like to the leadership. 
    • Evaluate progress on the plan once a month.
    • Identify a more appropriate job role to fir better.
    • If there is no improvement within the set timeline, create an exit plan.

      3. High Performer Low Potential

    • Analyze their potential according to how their work will be changed in the future and help prepare accordingly.
    • Can be considered for pay raise and mid-level management.

       4. Low performer High Potential

    • Communicate clear expectations to improve their current performance.
    • Give them time to develop and keep monitoring their performance. Individuals with high potential should start performing within six to twelve months.
    • Don’t hesitate to invest in additional coaching or training for these employees.

       5. Moderate Performer Moderate Potential

    • Communicate expectations and role requirements.
    • Give time to develop and monitor performance.
    • Consider them for job enlargement at the same level.
    • Consistently praise accomplishments and good performance to motivate. 
    • Assign tasks or projects that challenge them. 
    • Provide peer coaching by a high-performing employee to overcome performance barriers. Or provide classroom training and on-the-job learning opportunities to overcome any skill gaps that hold them back.
    • They may benefit from coaching in people management.

        6. High Performer Moderate Potential and Moderate Performer High Potential

    • Schedule regular check-ins and appreciate their work.
    • Give stretch assignments to grow more into the current role.
    • Give challenging assignments to prepare for leadership roles.
    • They may require help in improving strategic thinking.

        7. High Performer High Potential

    • Give challenging assignments.
    • Check-in regularly to ensure they are happy in the current role or if there are any signs of dissatisfaction.
    • Make them feel appreciated for their contributions.
    • Provide mentorship and networking opportunities with more senior members of the organization.
    • Reward them and ensure that they receive competitive compensation.
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Free 9-Box Grid Template

To help you execute employee performance and development planning, we’ve created a free 9-box grid template for you to download below:

✓ Thank you, the template will be sent to your email

FREE TEMPLATE
Download your 9-Box Grid template!
Wrap-up

The 9-box grid model helps manage employees with different levels of performance and potential in your organization.

Remember, the true value of the 9-box grid is not about putting certain labels to employees. It is rather implemented to evaluate an employee’s success and ensure that the organization invests in the right development programs for the right employee. 

Invest in digital adoption platforms such as Whatfix to find the maximum ROI on your employee development programs. Using DAPs as your training software empowers employees to upskill themselves on the latest tools, applications, or processes without disrupting their workflow and productivity. It’s the best resource to make your employee development plans future-ready and valuable.

Download our free 9-box grid template now
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