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9-Box Grid Matrix and What Many People Don’t Get About It

21 min read

It has been more than 50 years since the 9-box grid matrix was born in the boardrooms of McKinsey and Co. Interestingly, it was developed not to measure employee performance. Its original application was to help General Electric identify areas best suited for investment. Eventually, the model evolved into a highly favored tool to evaluate talent and performance.  

Just like it was not originally intended for performance management, we would be shortsighted if we were to see it merely as a tool to evaluate employees. Why? Because it’s much more than that. However, before we delve into what it is, let’s find out why performance management has traditionally been a challenge for organizations.  

Why performance management is a tough mountain to scale 

Performance management has traditionally been a tough nut to crack for many organizations. You cannot relegate performance management to data merely because of the many other aspects of performance that are difficult to quantify. Remote work, difficulties in providing fair and consistent evaluations, and lack of effective training are some of the areas where organizations face difficulties in measuring employee performance.  

 


Take this scenario as an example: 

You have two employees, Sara and Satish, both with a similar set of responsibilities. You are to decide whom you would promote to a leadership position and whom you would reward with an appraisal.  

Satish has outperformed Sara and the data suggests that he should be promoted.  

Satish – a highly organized, and driven professional who has completed all his assignments before deadlines. His work quality is commendable. He doesn’t engage much with other team members and keeps to himself.  

Sara – a brilliant tactician who works alongside different team members while also handling her own assignments. In terms of on-time deliveries, she is not as good as Satish but she is known for helping others out and assisting those who have hit a hurdle.  

Unfortunately, the performance data alone cannot quantify or measure the nuances mentioned above. The data was unable to quantify are some other aspects of Sara, such as her leadership qualities, how she helped other team members achieve their targets and so on.  

If you merely go with performance data, it will appear that you should promote Satish to a leadership position.  

However, it’s Sara who actually deserves to be promoted. Satish should be rewarded for his performance, but it would not be in the organization’s best interest to promote him. 


 

Another challenge that organizations face during performance evaluation is the lack of standardization.  

How would you measure the performance of employees whose metrics are not the same?  

In an era where companies are struggling to find and retain their top talent, performance management is the most critical aspect that will determine how successful an organization would be in retaining their top talent and winning the talent war. If used strategically, the 9-box grid matrix could help them do that. 

What most people don’t get about the 9-box matrix  

By bracketing it as a performance management tool, many executives subconsciously tie it to the dreaded, manager-centric process that performance management has come to be known. By doing so, it becomes difficult to look at the matrix in any other way than the one we bracket it into.  

The 9-box matrix has a wide set of applications that are directly and deeply connected to individual and organizational growth. Apart from the widely accepted usage as a tool to evaluate employee performance and potential, the method helps organizations in: 

  • Identifying which talent pools to invest in 
  • Undertaking succession planning and leadership development 

The beauty of the 9-box grid matrix  

The 9-box grid matrix is a brilliant yet simple method of evaluating employees that helps organizations categorize their employees into 9 boxes, each with a clear definition that would help them decide how to proceed with them.  

The 9-grid matrix is primarily built on two axis. One that measures performance and one that evaluates potential. As implied, the performance axis that is depicted as the horizontal axis is all about helping you understand the past performance of an employee. On the other hand, the vertical axis helps you understand the future potential of an employee.  

9box Model Feature in Keka HCM Software

 

Box-by-box explanation of the 9-box grid matrix

Let’s dive deeper and understand what each box of the 9-box grid matrix stands for. 

1. Bottom of the Barrel (low potential, low performance)

They feature on the lowest rung of both performance and potential axis. With neither any promise nor any performance to show for, they are clearly bad hires. They should be transitioned out of the organization or else you would end up investing time and effort on them with no results. What can you do about them?
Find out if there are any personal roadblocks that are hindering their work. Is there any other assignment more suited to their skillset and interests? If even after doing this, they are incapable of moving out of this box, then it’s time for them to part their ways with you.  

2. Steady but Not Striving (low potential, moderate performance)

These employees feature at the lowest row of the potential axis but when it comes to performance, they could be termed as average. They don’t show much promise but have performed better than the at-risk employees. How to go about with them?
Give them a benchmark to strive for. The best approach here could be to let them know that they need to do better in terms of performance. An action plan for personal improvement will work, provided it aims to help them overcome personal roadblocks.  

3. Highflyers with Low Ceilings (low potential, high performance)

These employees have performed well and are undervalued assets of your organization. Although they score low on potential, they carry your organization on your shoulders when it comes to work. They always deliver and are also characterized as hard workers. What’s next for them?
Keep them happy and make them feel valued through an increase in salaries. Prepare them and equip them with the skillset so that they are ready to face changes in future. This set of employees is not to be promoted.  

4. Unmet Potential (Moderate potential, low performance)

Such employees have a moderate potential that has not been tapped into, resulting in their low performance. Usually, the lack of clarity about their responsibilities and an absence of feedback from managers leads employees to fall into this stage. How to move them upward:
Identify the causes behind their low performance. Are they receiving timely feedback? Have you provided them with the right mentorship? These are some questions to ponder on. Support and guidance could be primary elements that will help these employees improve their performance. 

5. The Middle-of-the-Pack Talent (moderate potential, moderate performance)

Trustworthy and reliable, you can expect these employees to grow both in terms of performance and potential. Although they deliver consistently, they do have room for improvement. What should be your priority here?
Provide them with opportunities so that they are exposed to other experiences. Move them to moderately challenging roles while also providing support and mentorship to excel in those roles. Continue with the practice of setting clear expectations and praise them when they meet or exceed expectations. 

6. The Silent Achievers (moderate potential, high performance)

With their great performance and the promise of potential, this group should format the bulwark of your future strategy. Their performance is consistent, and many times exceeds expectations. Although they score moderate in terms of their potential, they make it up through their dedication, work ethic, and thirst for hard workYour action plan for this group:
Your L&D investment and training should focus on this group. Identify the areas where they exceed expectations and entrust them with similar, more challenging responsibilities. Be generous in praising them over their accomplishments and encourage them for their initiatives. Pairing them with high potential, high performing peers could be a great way to move them up the ladder.  

7. Untapped Resources (High potential, low performance)

Before a diamond is cut and polished, it is found in the shape of a rock, barely noticeable. Employees in this group are unrecognized diamonds that you need to polish and hone. Although they have great potential, their performance could be unsatisfactory due to a host of reasons, such as time needed to adjust to new roles, lack of clarity with regards to expectations and so on. How to move them upwards:
The highest priority with regards to this group is: bring them out of the rut. Identify and clear the roadblocks that are hindering their performance. Since they are more promising, their improvement also needs to happen at a rapid pace. Make sure you have placed them in a role that would enjoy doing and won’t feel boxed in. As in most of the groups of the matrix, clear communication of expectations and constant monitoring of feedback would be critical here too. 

8. Emerging Talent (High potential, moderate performance)

These employees could be characterized as highly ambitious who would be ready to jump into multiple projects and learn new things. Sometimes, this comes at the cost of persistent performance. When you look at them from the outset, you could find that they are meeting expectations. However, considering their high potential, they should be exceeding expectations.The action plan:
Providing development opportunities and clear feedback is the way to go forward. There should be a clear benchmark with regard to their upward movement which is: the final box, of high potential, high performance employees.  

9. Elite Talent (High potential, high performance)

These are the A-Players of your team and the future leaders that you need to groom. Primarily they should be at the center of your succession planning strategy. They have a diverse skill set and are capable of handling turnarounds and challenging situations. The next step:
Make sure your elite talent is not just happy, but they also continue to believe in the organization’s goals with increasing zeal and enthusiasm. Continue giving them challenging tasks and focus more on their training related to people management, and other critical areas that will ensure their holistic development as a leader.  

 

Do you want all your employees to be star performers? 

If everyone is a leader, who would be following them? If everyone is into developing the best strategies, who would be left to implement them? Depending on your organization, you would have to define an ideal ratio for each box in the 9-box grid matrix.  

However, the employees that feature in the ‘low potential, low performance’ box are a risk for your organization if left unchecked. You should either ensure they move up the ladder or prepare an exit plan for them.  

Same goes for those in the ‘average performance, low potential’ and ‘moderate potential, low performance’ boxes of the matrix. Prioritize moving them to the ‘moderate potential, moderate performance’ box.  

The remaining 6 boxes of the matrix feature employees that are the future of your organization. Your primary investments in terms of L&D should be centered around them.  

If we talk about an ideal employee ratio for each box in the 9-box grid matrix, it could differ based on the company size, the industry it operates in, and several other factors. However, the following are some important points to take into consideration.  

  • Your organization should have the largest number of employees in the box of ‘Moderate Potential, Moderate Performance’ employees. They are the ones who carry your company on their shoulders. They are the ones who are hard workers and can be counted on to deliver and meet expectations.  
  • Similarly, if you have employees who fall under the ‘Low Potential, Low Performance’, it means you need to correct your hiring strategy and processes.  
  • All employees that show moderate to high potential require your attention. Invest in in improving their performance.  
  • On the other hand, employees with high or moderate performance and moderate potential are the ones you need to keep happy. Do provide them with opportunities to grow.  

9 Box Grid Matrix as a Growth Inducing Tool

Use the 9-box grid matrix as a growth inducing tool  

For far too long, the 9-box grid matrix has been relegated to mere performance management. It has come to be regarded more as a tool that helps an organization identify which employees to remove. This perception is unfortunate and limits its potential.  

As a business leader, you need to look at the 9-box grid matrix as a growth inducing tool.  

  1. Continuously identify high-potential and high-performing employees so that you can invest in their training.
  2. The identification of your top employees will also give you clarity whom to retain and ensure there is no attrition in this group.  
  3. Use the matrix to identify skill gaps among your employees, at all levels. Create L&D personalized to each box in the matrix.  
  4. Initiate succession planning by using the matrix as a primary pointer to identify the right talent for future leadership roles.  
  5. Use the matrix to decide which development investments to prioritize 
  6. Encourage cross-functional development by identifying employees whose expertise and skills could be used in multiple areas of the company  
  7. Regularly track employee performance, especially after you have taken steps to induce growth based on the 9-box grid matrix. 

 

9-box grid matrix for succession planning 

The 9-box grid matrix could be deployed as a highly effective tool to improve employee experience.  

  • By identifying your best resources and employees, you can invest in activities that would cement their loyalty to your organization.  
  • With a clear picture of who stands where in the matrix, the growth path and opportunities will be clearer for employees, reducing the chances of attrition.  
  • The matrix can also play a major role in compensation benchmarking as it will help in defining a compensation range for each box.  
  • The transparency it brings will provide employees with clarity about where they stand and what path do they need to advance in their careers.  
  • With this method, succession planning would no longer be an enigma as you will have lists of employees you can groom for leadership. 

 

Keka’s Performance Management Module and the 9-box grid matrix  

Keka features a highly dynamic and practical Performance Management Module that incorporates the best practices in performance evaluation and appraisals. It also includes the 9-box grid matrix to measure the performance and potential of employees.  

When it comes to performance management, a lot of businesses struggle to strike the right balance between what is practiced and what is ideal. When it comes to performance rating, most of the managers rate their team members with higher scores. However, this also means that a huge number of employees will fall under the category that is to be promoted or rewarded. Ideally, the percentage of employees to be promoted or rewarded should not exceed 20% of the total workforce.  

Keka’s Performance Management Module features two of the most used metrics to evaluate and brack employees in different performance categories.  

  1. The Bell Curve Method 
  2. The 9-Box Grid Matrix 

While the Bell Curve method could be used if you want to measure performance, the 9-Box Grid Matrix would be ideal if you want to measure performance as well as potential. 

 

Ready to think out-of-the-box?  

By using the 9-box Grid Matrix as a growth-inducing tool you would not just be able to profile and categorize your workforce in different segments and pools but would also be able to gain clarity as to where to invest more.  

If truth be told, the entire performance management activity needs to be taken out of the constraints of appraisals and promotions. While these are important components, the larger goals are more strategic and important for the overall health of the organization  

Our Performance Management Module has been used by high-growth companies that were rapidly growing in terms of headcount and revenue. It has stood the test of time and has been HR leaders and practitioners.  

If you would like to witness its capabilities live, our experts would be more than happy to connect with you and discuss your challenges.  

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    Meet the author

    Ahmed ZD

    Ahmed is a storyteller and a bookworm. He has joined Keka to be a part of its HR transformation cause. He loves telling untold stories and believes that all objects (even a brick that has fallen from a wall) and living beings have unique stories that deserve to be told. He is a firm believer that no movie can ever do justice to the book it's based on and it's his lifelong mission to convince everyone he meets to read books before they watch movie adaptations.

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