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Why I Love Nine-Boxing and Why You Should, Too

July 31, 2012

The origin of the management practice of Nine-Boxing, or for the more formal reader, The Performance-Potential Matrix, is shrouded in mystery.  No one seems to know for sure who invented it.  This wonderfully simplistic tool is the management science equivalent of free software.  It's like Angry Birds for administrators; Fruit Ninja for the executive.  Nine-Boxing is a method for assessing talent in your organization along two dimensions - past performance and future potential.  Typically the talent pool consists of the individuals in your organization that might be considered for career progression - from individual contributors to executives.  In essense, Nine-Boxing provides a simple yet effective tool for forming the foundations of succession planning.

In a nutshell, the process goes like this:

  1. Categorize Performance.  The organization's performance management process is used to classify the talent pool into 3 categories: outstanding performance, good performance and poor performance.  Managers and HR professionals in most organizations are able to accomplish this process with a great deal of accuracy and precision.
  2. Categorize Potential.  Far more challenging is the science of predicting potential.  As with performance, organizational decision makers are tasked with classifying their talent pool along 3 dimensions: high potential (the so-called Hi-Po's), medium potential and low potential.  The task involves conducting some form of employee assessment on each member in the talent pool.  High-performing organizations typically use high-value management tools like executive assessments.  The alternative to this approach is the use of subjective judgments as in a 360-Degree Feedback process where evaluations are used to predict potential.  This essentially turns the science of assessment into more of a stylized art.
  3. Categorize the Talent Pool into Your Nine-Box.  Armed with one and two above, organizational decision makers now place each member of the talent pool into the nine box matrix according to their performance and potential categories as illustrated here.

9 box blank

Over the next several weeks, I'll discuss what to do with the talent in each of the boxes, the pitfalls and dangers to be avoided, and the opportunities to be gained.

"So it's simple and free," you say.  "Why else should I love Nine-Boxing?"

  • Standards.  Nine-Boxing leads your organizational decision makers toward developing clear and consistent standards for defining performance and potential.  Because ultimately, a great deal of your organization's success depends on how effectively you develop your talent, it will quickly become very important to ensure that the people in your talent pool are appropriately classified.  And after all, a lot is riding on these decisions for your employees as well.

  • Dialogue.  Utilizing the process can form the basis for a dialogue in your organization about how talent is assessed, measured and developed.  In fact, it can give birth to numerous dialogues.  Where to put your developmental dollars?  Whom to single out for challenging assignments?  How to plan for future turnover and successions?  What do we do to foster teamwork?

  • Structure.  The tool helps provide a structured way to think about where your talent fits within the context of your organizational culture.  The structure allows managers and other decision makers to be comfortable in pointing out the blind spots in the people who work for them.  Often, and in particular with acceptable or outstanding performers, difficult conversations do not take place.

  • Culture.  You can use Nine-Boxing as a way of reinforcing cultural values surrounding talent management, teamwork and collaboration.  It can form the basis for how your organization's management team shares a collective responsibility for the organization's future success.

So, during your time normally devoted to Solitaire, Tetris or Angry Birds (depending on your generation), download the free Nine-Box app from your grey-matter computer to a notepad (or drink napkin) and start placing your people in the box where you think they belong.  Share your thoughts with others and consider what your organization might do to nail down the science of assessing potential.  You'll come to love Nine-Boxing like I do.

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Drew Brock, Ph.D.