How to Use the Nine-Box Matrix for Succession Planning and Development

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By: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Published 12/6/2014

To learn more about the performance and potential nine-box matrix and why it can be such an effective tool for succession planning and leadership development, see 8 Reasons to Use the Performance and Potential Nine-Box Matrix for Succession Planning and Leadership Development.

1. Get some help to use it for the first time.

One of the benefits of using the nine-box to assess and develop talent is its lack of complexity.

While the tool may be simple, the dynamics of people using the tool are not. Don’t underestimate the amount of anxiety it can cause if a team has never done anything like this before (a ranking exercise). The nine-box is best if used by a team and facilitated by someone who has experience with the process. This could be an HR person, OD consultant, someone responsible for leadership development or succession planning, or an outside consultant. Once a team has used it a couple times, they can usually do it themselves, but it still helps to have someone facilitate the dialogue, take notes, etc. If you are a talent management practitioner, try to shadow someone with expertise, hire someone to guide you through your first one, or at least work with someone to prepare you.

2. Have a pre-meeting.

Review the nine-box and process to the team prior to using it to make sure they all understand and buy-in to the purpose and process.

Review the mechanics of how to fill out the grid, along with a few hypothetical examples. It’s best to decide ahead of time how performance will be assessed (use a leadership competency model if you have one) and how potential will be assessed (use specific potential criteria). For performance, it’s best to use a three-year average, not just one year.

This is the time to establish ground rules as well, especially around meeting behaviors and confidentiality.

3. Preparation.

Have each manager fill in a grid for their own employees and have the facilitator collect and consolidate them. You could also ask for any other relevant information, such as years in current position, diversity status, or retention risk. I usually have each manager plot their direct report managers (one level at a time, so we’re comparing apples to apples). I then consolidate all of the names, by level, on one master organizational grid.
You can start with a two to four-hour meeting, but it will usually take one to two follow-up meetings to finish. Bring copies of the consolidated grid for each participant. As a meeting facilitator or consultant, I’ll often give the meeting leader a preview of the results and discuss any potential landmines, especially if it’s the first time working with a team.

4. Getting started.

It’s easier picking someone in the 1A box (highest performance and potential) where you think there may be little disagreement. Ask the sponsor manager of the employee to explain the rationale for the assessment. Ask lots of whys, and then invite all others to comment.

Don’t rush it; the benefit of this process is in the discussion. It may seem slow at first, but the pace will pick up as the team gets more familiar with the process. 

5. Establish your “benchmarks.”

After all parties have had a chance to speak, if there is agreement, then you have a benchmark for high performance and potential (1A) for all others to compare against. If disagreement in perception, ask the sponsor manager if they want to change their mind based on the feedback – usually they do – but if not, leave it. Pick another name until you establish the benchmark.

6. Discuss as many names as time allows.

You can then discuss rest of the names in the 1A box, and then move to the bordering boxes (1B and 2A). Then move to the 3C box, and again, facilitate a dialogue to establish another benchmark for low performance and potential.

Continue the discussion for each person, or as many as time permits.

7. Discuss development needs and actions for each employee.

If time allows, or, most likely at a follow-up meeting, the team can discuss individual development plans (IDPs) for each employee. For succession planning, the focus should be on the upper right-hand corner boxes (1A, 1B, and 2A) – this is the organization’s high potential pool. Another option is to discuss development as a part of the assessment discussion, while the person’s strengths and weaknesses are being discussed. For poor performers (3C), action plans should be discussed and agreed upon.

8. Follow-up on a quarterly basis to monitor development plans.

Without monitoring and follow up there's a good chance development plans will be ignored or slip away. Organizations that are committed to talent development track their IDPs like any other important business metric. What gets measured usually gets done.

9. Repeat the assessment process at least once a year.

Organizations are dynamic – people come and go, and perceptions of performance and potential can change based on results and behavior. It’s important to revisit the process to re-assess and update development plans on a regular basis.