Why you need to ditch the nine-box grid

Many are rejecting the nine-box grid and rolling out more flexible, bespoke talent management systems

What’s not to like about the nine-box grid (NBG)? It’s free, easy to use and ubiquitous. With so much in its favour, surely the NBG should qualify as a reassuring certainty of talent management?

Developed on the two simple axis of potential and performance, it undoubtedly has its virtues. But there is a groundswell of opinion among many talent management professionals that the tool has its drawbacks.

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As far back as October 2011, Lancaster University Management School published a whitepaper called Talent Management: Time to Question the Tablets of Stone?

It argued that the NBG is often associated with a much-criticised view of potential that places an over-emphasis on a ‘talent as critical people’ approach – giving too much credence to personal brilliance without factoring in that a large amount of individual success is down to the systems and support an organisation puts in place.

More recently, disquiet has deepened. It’s rare these days to attend a seminar or conference on talent without someone decrying the shortcomings of the NBG.

“Personally I have never implemented the nine-box grid – I think it’s a deeply flawed tool,” says Wendy Hirsh, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies. “I don’t mind what tools people use. But I do mind if they start using them without knowing what they are trying to do. Then it becomes literally a box-ticking exercise.”

Hirsh recently authored a paper, HR Essentials: Effective talent and succession management, which sets out a framework and offers 10 practical tips for improving an organisation’s approach to talent management.

Among the litany of problems she identifies with NBGs, is that performance ratings can be very unreliable. For example, someone who is new to a job is unlikely to be performing as well as someone who has been in position for a comparatively long time.

Another issue is that incredibly good performers may be given the somewhat demotivating label of ‘solid contributors’ if they are uninterested in taking a general leadership role (even though they may be star performers within a specialist function).

According to research by leadership specialist Roffey Park, a third of operational managers say they find the NBG difficult to implement, have concerns about their capacity for objectivity when using such methods, and are reluctant to ‘label’ employees. The research highlights that the tool itself is far less important than how it is used, and the presence of a mature management culture able to support it.

“New approaches are often implemented without sufficient transparency, giving employees a sense of being ‘done to’ rather than being involved in a process aimed at helping them,” says Roffey Park head of research Dan Lucy.

“Managers may feel under-equipped to effectively hold the different types of conversations that emerge as a result of the process. Lack of confidence in such matters can lead to a ‘shying away’, and conversations that are brief and uneventful rather than engaging and enriching. Employees end up disengaged and HR becomes ever more focused on tightening up the process rather than supporting managers with the skills they need.”

Bus operator FirstGroup is keen to avoid this scenario. Under group head of talent Lee Sprung, it recently introduced a wheel tool as a means of segmenting its workforce.

“It tends to be the big failing with talent-type processes – management spends a lot of time trying to get people in the right boxes,” says Sprung. “So they tend to forget what happens next. What do you get from a conversation point of view, but also an action point of view?”

The wheel tool makes it easier to have “more rounded conversations” with employees, Sprung asserts. Moreover, there is a far greater focus on action and outputs rather than an obsession over which box people fall into.

Penny de Valk, managing director of Penna’s Talent Practice, agrees. “While the nine-box grid is an icon of talent management, the real value is in the quality of the conversation it provokes about the individual.

"This is because frameworks often create so much process that the process becomes the end game – rather than a facilitator for great conversations. We can end up collecting a lot of data and then doing very little with it.”

A related issue is HR treating these processes like a yearly ‘fix’. As a consequence it’s often a case of all hands to the pump once a year.

Compounding the problem of succession planning and identifying potential are inflexible competency frameworks that focus on what has been successful so far instead of being forward-looking.

Annual reviews often also don’t take into account role evolution. A company, team or economic environment could have shifted significantly during a year, yet an individual may still be benchmarked on outdated objectives.

“Shoehorning individuals into competency boxes that apply across everyone in an organisation can be detrimental,” adds de Valk.

“It neatly packages what can be measured and codified, but not what has the most impact. If the same frameworks have been in place for as long as anyone at a business can remember it is unlikely they are identifying leadership required for today’s workplace – meaning that people may get filtered out unnecessarily.”

So it’s clear that the NBG is (without the proper supporting structures) a limited tool. This has lead many organisations, such as FirstGroup, to dispense with it altogether. But others insist it still holds some value. It just needs expanding upon and using in the right way.