As I continue to develop my work in transforming talent strategies across a range of businesses I’m constantly confronted with the challenges of the same talent tool used in the majority of organisations – the 9-box grid.

I’m convinced, like a rusted old spanner found at the bottom of your toolkit at home, the old 9-box grid is becoming more and more useless as a talent tool. People managers often see it as more of an annual distraction rather than supporting a genuine talent strategy. The 9-box grid seems to have become the huge tick box it was never intended to be.

What is the 9-box grid?

Here’s a quick explanation of the 9-box grid, for any non-talent managers reading this, and so that we are all on the same page. The process was developed over 40 years ago, with GE & McKinsey, as a tool to assess top talent by measuring people’s performance (Low-Med-High) against their potential (Small-Some-Lots). In theory this maps your talent across the organisation (but only in theory).

While the tool does provide a moment in time focus on talent and provokes genuine strategic discussion, I’ve highlighted three of the generic challenges we are often faced with, and questions to ask yourself around how you currently use the tool.

The data isn’t real, it’s just an opinion.

The 9-box grid data is dependent on that manager’s opinion on key factors such as performance Vs potential, promotability, learning agility etc. However, recent research is consistently pointing towards what is termed as the Idiosyncratic Rater Effect [Journal of Applied Psychology and Personnel Psychology]. The 9-box rating is based on the rater’s own idiosyncrasies of their own definition of potential. As a result, an average of 61% of the talent rating is based on the rater themselves and not the person in question.

  • Do you consider a rater’s own bias, favouritism, protectionism?
  • Are all your high potentials just a mirror image of the person that placed them in that box and is that what you want?
  • How can you focus on neutralising rater bias and improving their competency?

The grid itself is not the outcome

One of the constant frustrations with the talent mapping process is that the ownership is consistently placed on the HR department to drive the process forward. Operationally, many leaders approach the 9-box process in the same way that they would with a financial audit of their department or an IT upgrade; “It’s a pain, but we’ve just got to get on with it to get HR off our backs so that we can concentrate on the important stuff”. The measure of success is all too often the percentage of the business that has completed the process but not the actual results.

  • How can responsibility be shared across the organisation with HR working in partnership rather than perceived opposition?
  • Do you measure the performance of the grid and share successes and failures in order to get buy-in of the importance of effective talent management?
  • How transparent is the output of your grid? Are people aware they are seen as high, medium or low potential? More importantly are they aware of the reasons why?

As every second goes by it becomes more and more obsolete

The process of completing the grid provides an instant snapshot of your organisational talent but that’s all it is, a snapshot (based on differing opinions). It may be helpful to get a moment in time review but remember, often the reviews take several months to complete, compile and analyse. By the time they’re signed off, the flow of talent has moved on.

  • How could you ensure a more fluid rating throughout the year rather than a once a year snapshot?
  • How can you encourage a more informal approach to talent ratings based on regular transparent discussion?
  • Can you project your current snapshots into the future, based on the strategic requirements of the business? What does it look like and what do you need to do in order to close the gap?

For more details on my new Talent Diagnostic service and how I can help transform your Talent Strategy please email Matt Williams, ‘The Talent Coach’ at matt@twentyoneleadership.com

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